The Author

Happy New You

I recently had to be over at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas to renew my clergy badge. This is one of the perks that the hospital provides ministers–after some training–that allows us access to usually off limits or after-hours places in the hospital. I can swipe my card and get into the emergency area or into surgery waiting without having to jump through too many hoops. In addition, using the card allows me to park in some of the employee lots. Because the management of the parking lots has been outsourced to a new company, everyone who had an old badge had to get a new one.

I was standing in line with everyone else just a couple of days after the new year enduring the process while eavesdropping on the conversation in front of me. A couple of ministers who obviously knew each other were comparing notes on how the year had begun. The man directly in front of me was proud of the fact that he was answering the phone in a unique way. Whenever it would ring, he would answer with, “Happy New You!” Every time he said this (and he said it several times), he would break out in a loud laugh. Every time he laughed, I laughed.

He didn’t say how people responded to his greeting. I suspect that if he laughed every time he said, they couldn’t help but respond the way I did. But if you try saying it, you’ll discover that it isn’t easy to say. Probably it’s because we are so used to the familiar phrase that our mind has a hard time adapting to the new phrase. That last word keeps wanting to be year. Old habits are hard to break.

That is the real challenge, isn’t it? At the start of every year, tradition tells us that we should make resolutions, chart a new course, make a new beginning. But it’s hard, much harder than saying – it’s hard to do.Maybe the fellow in front of me laughed because he knew that the “new you” couldn’t happen without some help. I hope it was a prayer, a desire that the one who was listening would discover that newness that we all long for. It certainly is a promise. At the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the year, we are reminded that new things are possible because of the Lord whose birth we celebrate. He is the one who has come to make all things new. Happy new you.

What Is It about Snow?

What is it about snow and Christmas? Although it has been taken out of the forecast, the last little while the newspapers had been announcing the possibility that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would be accompanied by a little white or frozen precipitation. Whenever I heard folks talking about it, I could hear the glee in their voices. I still remember some years ago leaving a Christmas Eve service to discover that snow had begun falling. Even some of the grinches about such things had to allow that it made the evening a little more special.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we live outside the snow belt. Ellen and I have friends who live in Vermont. They’ve been shoveling snow for a month, so the idea of a white Christmas holds no special attraction for them.But for those of us who rarely see such a day, the possibility excites us a little.

I am sure that some of our dreaming has to do with the media. How many movies have exposed us to the wonders of a white Christmas wherein all is made right with the world? Movies where couples fall in love, holiday inns are saved, good guys win, and angels get their wings, all accompanied by snow on the ground. It’s almost as though none of this could happen without a layer of white over the muddiness of life.

I wonder if it is not also an excuse to slow down. At this time of year it is so easy to become so busy that the celebration of Christmas can be upon us and past so quickly that we lose all sense of its meaning. So many commitments and responsibilities pull at us that the only joy we have is when we are able to say, “It’s over.” Could it be that snow gives us an excuse to say to that extra commitment, that extra tug at the sleeve, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t; it’s snowing.”

Here’s the problem: it’s Texas. It probably won’t snow. So, when you are pulled in every direction in the next few days and you just want to stop and reflect on the wonder of God with us, the one who is Emmanuel, may I make a suggestion? Instead of looking for an excuse because you don’t want to do “just one more thing,” don’t be sorry, be glad. Just say, “I can’t. It’s Christmas.” For that is what it will be, whether it is snowing or not. After all, in this midst of all this busyness,isn’t Jesus what this is supposed to be all about?

Just a little north and west of San Antonio is the little town of Bandera. We visited The Cowboy Capital of the World on our recent time away. It was not on our original agenda, but we had heard some good words about it, so when we headed west, we decided that we could eat lunch there as we meandered our way back to the girls in Austin.

The population sign at the city limits said that just short of a thousand people live there. I think they were all on the main street of town that day looking for a place to eat lunch. It was the busiest and most-crowded 937 population town I have ever seen. Truth be told, it’s mostly a tourist trap, catering to would-be cowboys and people who come to float down the Medina River. We ate lunch in the Old Spanish Trail cafe (I recommend the enchiladas), then poked around in some of the shops that line the street. Ellen admired a silver bracelet displayed in one of the windows. Maybe the store will actually be open the next time we are there.

As we left, the plan was to take the road north out of town toward the general direction of Kerrville where we could pick up the road back to Austin. Following my nose rather than a map, I headed in the direction of what I am still convinced is north. About ten miles down the road, Ellen convinced me that we were on the wrong road. I said, “Well, let’s just see where this takes us.”

If you are ever in that part of the world, take highway 16 (north, I think) out of Bandera. When you do, you will enter a world that is unlike any other you have seen in Texas. As we drove well below the speed limit on the road, we encountered streams running by the road, deer grazing in the pasture, trees arching over the highway, closing off the sun. At one point, I exclaimed, “This is like driving in a park!” Before we reached the town of Comfort (isn’t that a great name?), we had forded a low water crossing and climbed a mountain (at least by Texas standards) whose switchbacks wouldn’t allow us to drive any faster than fifteen miles an hour. The drive ranks as one of the highlights of our trip, and it was all a mistake, a last-second decision.

Or, maybe it was grace. God works like that. Sometimes in the midst of the plans we are making, we are faced with a choice to turn right or left. We say, “Let’s see where this one will take us,” and we discover surprises and blessings that we would have otherwise missed. Sometimes, we make mistakes and we discover that God is there to redeem, to change the plans, to lead us in ways that we would have never gone in our headlong determination to get where we are going. The key, it seems to me, is to be open to the possibility of God working even in the meanderings of life. The key is to be open to God’s grace. You just never know where it might take you.

Katrina Revisited

This week is the tenth anniversary of Katrina. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name, Katrina was a hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast, focusing its energy on Louisiana and Mississippi. While many parts of the region suffered greatly, the greatest loss of lives and property were in the Jefferson and Orleans parishes of Louisiana. Ironically, it was not the hurricane itself that did the most damage. Winds, high water, and delayed repairs combined to weaken the levees of Lake Pontchartrain so that devastating floods swamped the city of New Orleans. It was the second blow, not the first, that brought the city to its knees.

Perhaps you remember some of the after effects of the storm. The football stadium in New Orleans became a staging area and temporary home for refugees. Churches as far north as Dallas opened their facilities to those who were fleeing the storm with only the clothes on their backs. Schools suddenly had to make room for students who had no other place to learn. I remember sitting in a restaurant with my family a couple of weeks after the storm. Every table other than ours was occupied by folks who had fled the storm. As I eavesdropped on their conversations, it was as though they were speaking a language I had never heard.

I have been reading some stories this week about the lives of those who picked up the pieces after the hurricane. Many of them have remained in the places they ran to. What was once a strange place has become their home. They have new jobs, new schools, new friends. Others returned to the city after the waters receded. They shoveled mud; they threw away washed out memories; they tore down homes; they buried the dead. While some left and some returned, they share a common story. Whatever is now is not what once was. They began again knowing that it would never be the same.

That is what happens when a hurricane hits. We batten down the hatches, we stand in the eye, we look to survive. Sometimes the wind passes and we pick up the pieces and go on. Sometimes, a second blow comes and we are faced with the truth that life will never be the same.This is the blow that takes us to our knees. From there, we decide what we must do.

The Corner

The northwest corner of Marsh and Forest seems to be a place that collects characters.

I have seen couples, dressed in white head to toe, holding white plastic buckets out to passersby expecting, I assume, that someone will drop in some change or a dollar bill. I am always a little amazed that some people do.

I have seen more than my share of panhandlers working the corner, accosting not only drivers in the street but also patrons of the gas station, asking them for “a little help.” Most of the time they are shrugged off or ignored by folks who are just trying to get away as fast as they can.

The most interesting, until recently, is the woman who has a cart of some sort that is piled high with what my mother would have called “I-don’t-know-what-all.” An antenna sticks up from the handle of the cart which is covered all around with aluminum foil. The sign attached to the front says that she is the victim of spying by the U.S. Government. I haven’t seen her in awhile. I hope that she is just staying out of the heat.

The cart lady was my favorite until a couple of weeks ago. Stopped at the light, I spied an average-sized bearded man, dressed in jeans and a shirt that had seen better days, pacing up and down the grass along the road, waving his hands in the air and talking. Since the light was red, I had time to watch for awhile and I could see that no one else was there to pick up the conversation. I suspected that he was one of those more and more common street people who suffer from delusions.

I was wrong about his lack of conversation partners. As the light turned green and the traffic moved, he switched his pacing, waving, and talking from north-south to east-west. He was talking to the drivers who passed him as he paced in the grass.

He wasn’t yelling; he wasn’t wandering; he wasn’t waving aimlessly. As I rolled slowly by, I saw a man with a big grin on his face, a twinkle in his eye, the palms of his hands turned toward me, saying words that I could only hear with my heart. As I passed him, I realized, “He just blessed me.” This stranger, one whom I was willing to write off as another odd occupant of one of the crossroads of life, was willing to withstand the heat of day to do good for anyone who was willing to see and hear.

I haven’t seen him on the corner since then, but it’s not for lack of looking. There’s something about being blessed that draws you back to the source. That must have been one of the things that attracted so many people to Jesus. They saw something others didn’t see, heard words that fell on otherwise deaf ears. When so many just chalked him up as odd, the ones who heard with their hearts knew he was from God. In a world that is full of so many odd characters, when we run into one that blesses us, we’ll keep coming back for more.

Washing Feet

As I write, it is Thursday morning, the day traditionally known as Maundy Thursday in the Christian Calendar. It is the night of his Last Supper with his disciples, the night in which he was betrayed by one of those closest to him.

There is some dispute about the origin of the word
Maundy. Traditionally, it is understood to come from the Latin word mandatum, which means a command or order. This interpretation comes from Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:14, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Many Christian groups, including several stripes of Baptists, have understood this to be a third ordinance, alongside the Supper and Baptism. The logic is, Jesus said do it, so we must do it.

The other interpretation is less well-established but at least as powerful. Some argue that the origin of the word is from the Latin
mendicare, which means ‘to beg.” The word is more an image than an act, the image of Jesus bending in submission to his disciples, serving them as a household slave. If you remember the events of that night as John records them, the disciple Peter was incensed and vowed that Jesus would never wash his feet. He was offended that Jesus would do such a thing.

I am torn between the two opinions. ’Til now, I have understood the act as an option, a suggestion more than a command, not really an ordinance; I still believe that the act of washing another’s feet in the regular worship of the church does not rise to the level of another ordinance, but is something that we could do as we re-enacted the events of the night before Jesus’ trial and death.

I am haunted, though, by the other possible definition. To be as humble as a servant, to lower oneself in the presence of another, even those who wish us ill (remember, Jesus washed Judas’s feet also) is far more than a ritual; it is the evidence of a life that is changed. To resist, to refuse, to declare “
I will never…” Well, I wonder what that means.

Does it mean that we have certain traditions that we hold dear that allow no additions? Does it mean that what we are really doing is just re-enacting, observing from afar what might be a good suggestion, but truly not a command? Does it mean that it might be alright for Jesus to be a servant, but not alright for us?

I write this on the Thursday before Easter. Sunday will be here before I know it. I better make up my mind what all this means.

Numbers Game

Do you have a favorite number? I do. The number 7 has been my favorite since childhood. The reason is simple: it was Mickey Mantle’s jersey number. Long before I became interested in any other team or player, I fancied myself as the one who would replace the Mick when he was no longer able to play the outfield for the Yankees.

I was thinking about this the other day because of a radio program I was listening to while traveling between hospitals. A scientist who studies brain development had been asked the question, “what’s your favorite number?” Being analytical and seeming somewhat cold-blooded, he thought the question was nonsense. What purpose would a favorite number serve and who would have one? Surely no one would really have a favorite number.

It turns out that he was wrong. First by casual questioning and then through disciplined research, he began to ask people if they had a favorite number and why. It turns out that many, if not most, people do, for all kinds of reasons. Like me, some have a connection to an athlete (ask all those who wear all those football and baseball jerseys what their favorite number is!). Others like the number that corresponds to their birthdate or anniversary. For all these reasons and more, people have favorite numbers.

As I listened, I hoped that he would announce that the number 7 was a rare favorite, one chosen by a special few. I was wrong. It turns out that 7 is the most common favorite number of the people that he had tested. As he dug deeper, he discovered that seven has been the preferred number throughout history. For example, the earliest preserved manuscripts ever discovered, written by the Babylonians, are full of events that revolve around that number.

Of course, I am sure that you are not really surprised by its importance. Long before the Babylonians got to writing down their thoughts, God had 7 on his mind during the creation. When he came to that seventh day, he looked around and declared all that he saw as “very good.” Because of God’s watchcare over his children, he ruled that the seventh day would be one of rest. When the Bible thinks of what is incomplete, that falls eternally short, it speaks of that which is 666. When, to be somewhat redundant, it wants to declare something eternally whole, 777 comes to mind.

What’s your favorite number? What does it remind you of? I was hoping that my number would be unique, but I have to confess that I don’t mind that I share it with others. I’m glad that God likes it, too, for it reminds me that one of these days, all that he has made will once again be very good.

Looking Around

I mowed the yard for the first time this year last weekend. It didn’t really need it, but it was a pretty day and I wanted to be outside. I wasn’t alone because I could hear the sound of other mowers in the neighborhood.

I also noticed that there was a lot of traffic on the street for a late Saturday morning. Cars are not unusual for the street because it is the main road into the neighborhood. What I did notice, though, was that most of them weren’t traveling at their usual breakneck speed. In fact, most of them were slowing down in front of my neighbors’ yard and looking at something.

It was a turkey buzzard, one of the ugliest birds in creation. Black wings, pocked and mottled red skin stretched across its face, a hooked nose designed for tearing prey, turkey buzzards are spread all across Texas. Anyone who has driven a lonely stretch of Texas highway has come across one of these birds feeding in the middle of the road. More than once, I have wondered if the one I was barreling down upon was going to lift off from the pavement in time. I have seen thousands from the inside of a car; they always survived.

They are rarely seen in the city, preferring the isolation and relative quiet of the country. Whether it was because this one had lost its way, its nest had been disturbed by construction, or it just needed a rest on its way somewhere else, this one had landed next door. When I realized what everyone was stopping for, I indulged in a little arrogance: “Haven’t you people ever seen a turkey buzzard before?” I kept on mowing.

After a little while, I caught a glimpse of something moving out of the corner of my eye, and turned to watch the visitor take a lumbering run and launch himself into the air. He cleared the street, circled the creek, and was gone.

In seconds I realized that I had passed up an opportunity that might not ever come again, I had the opportunity to walk across the lawn and look closely at something that, while I claimed I had seen plenty before, had always been at a distance and seventy miles an hour. My arrogance and presumption kept me from actually seeing something.

I have a feeling that I am not alone in that experience and, I’m afraid, that it is not limited to turkey buzzards. The old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I would add that it also leads to blindness, the inability to see what is truly there. It happens in our neighbors’ yards, around the kitchen table, in church. Because we are so sure that we “know,” we miss what is new, what is real, whether it is with our spouse, kids, parents, friends. Or even worship, Jesus, Easter.

The next time I get a chance to look, I pray I will. I’ll pray the same for you.

Escape Artist

Our old dog is a late-blooming escape artist. He’s been hanging around us for over ten years, and we don’t know how old he was when we rescued him from the pound. Until recently, he had never shown any inclination to run off, preferring instead a quick dash into the backyard and an even quicker return to the comforts of the indoors. I suppose those years that he lived on the streets more than cured his curiosity of what lay beyond the fence.

A few weeks ago, though, he disappeared. We had let him out for his daily routine and waited for the scratch at the back door. When it didn’t come, we called, wandered around the yard, even got in the car to drive around the neighborhood. After a good while, we gave up, wondering if his old ways had come back to haunt us. Then, a couple of hours later, we heard the scratch at the door.

These escapades went on daily for a few weeks. It became somewhat embarrassing when the neighbors began to call to say that they had him and would we come pick him up. The fellow who was carrying him in his arms like a baby handed him back to Ellen one day with that look people give you when your kid won’t stop acting up in church.

Something had to be done, and the solution started with figuring out his exit. Somehow, this worn out old dog, after years of zipping from the backyard into the house, had figured out how to squeeze himself between the fence and the gate to freedom. Since the gate slides rather than swings, I had to come up with some kind of fence that allowed it to slide and yet cut off his access. A trip to Home Depot and forty dollars later, I had a fence in place.

As soon as it was up, I went in the house to let him out. He’s a sneak, so knowing he wouldn’t do anything as long as I watched, I went into the house and stood by a window. He streaked for the exit, then slammed on the brakes. He sniffed the length of the fence. He explored every post. He challenged every connection. Then, he trotted back toward the house and scratched at the door. When I let him in, he flopped on the floor and looked up at me as if to say, “Ya got me.”

I experienced an initial flush of victory, but it passed. I had won, but at a cost. In those weeks when he would escape, he had the best of both worlds: the freedom to explore, to discover, to do what dogs are created to do, and the security of knowing that he could come home to safety. I hadn’t built the fence from some concern for safety; I had built the fence out of embarrassment, because of the protests of others, due to someone else’s opinions about what to do with him. I looked at him the other day, sprawled out on the floor, looking out the window into the world. I said, “I know what you’re thinking, buddy. Cheer up. This won’t last forever. Before long, the only one who’s opinion is going to count is the One who created us to be free.”