The Author

Plant Monsters

All the rose bushes in our yard are gone. Over the last few weeks, I have cut and dug and pulled until they are no more. It was not a labor of love, but one of frustration and sadness because those spreading roses in the front yard were all-summer bloomers, the talk of neighbors who walked down the sidewalk just to get a view of the flowers. They were done in by the dreaded rose rosette disease.

If you haven’t heard of this evil, rose rosette is rampant on roses (and roses only) in this part of the world, taking out plants left and right. The irony is that it’s not really a disease at all, but a reaction to a mite that feasts on the canes and flowers. If the mites ever invade one plant, they will soon be on all of them. The only answer is to take them all out.

Almost impossible to see, blown in by the wind, the insect turns beautiful plants into monsters. For some reason, the plant reacts to the mite by sending out large red limbs that are covered with thorns. At the end of the cane will be a profusion of buds that never come to flower. They look like a thorny broom, which leads some people to call the problem by its other name, witches’ broom.

I know the roses don’t take it personally, but I do. It almost seems as though the change from beauty to ugliness is not only a signal of infestation, but a cry for help. The abundance of thorns, the gangly limbs, the bud that won’t come to flower – why would anyone self-respecting creature be proud of those? The inability to produce, the loss of beauty, says to all who pass by, “please help.”

All of this reminds me of the human brokenness all around us. Distortion and marred beauty are familiar because of the infestation that corrupts our lives. When those roses cry out, sadly, the only solution is removal, root and branch. How grateful we should be that God sees our brokenness as a cry for help and, through Jesus, removes the infestation. The beauty is restored. God sees it. Do you?

150 Years

I was interviewed this week by someone who is working on an oral history project for the city of Farmers Branch. The interviewer was most interested in hearing about the earliest days of the church in this area, the church’s founding, and those folks who were a part of that beginning.

Like anyone else, I was dependent upon what I had heard and read through the years. I also had to use my imagination, thinking about what it was like when there were no churches, no office buildings, no apartments, no freeways – just farmland and farmers trying to make a living in this black clay soil. It was fun to think about how different life was as they faced challenges on what was then the frontier of Texas.

One of the questions that the interviewer asked me was how a church survives in one place for 150 years. I wished that she had given me a list of questions to think about beforehand, and this was one of them. I was as honest as I know to be. The truth is, no church lasts in the same place for 150 years. People come and go. Cultures and environments change. What once was a farming community church becomes a small town church becomes a growing church in a growing community and then a smaller church in a rapidly changing metropolitan area. Go back to count and you will find that I have just described four churches. Not one church but four (and I am sure that number is too small) over the span of almost 150 years.

However, even with all the change culturally and institutionally, we have much in common with not only that first church, but every one since. Two factors have remained the same. The first is that people made in the image of God have faced the challenges of life while trying to understand how God is at work in their lives. If I may put it plainly, people have always worked, loved, reared families, and died while living in the shadow of God’s grace. The second is this: what remains – survives – is the reality that is the family of God. No matter the change, whether in institution, environment, or culture, that family thread remains. We are connected by faith through the grace of God with all those who have gone before.

How does a church last 150 years? If you mean the same institution in the same place, the answer is: It doesn’t. What lasts is family - the family of God. That lasts for eternity.

Holy Week

As I’ve thought about that last week of Jesus’ life, the life that ended on Friday, it occurs to me that so much of what happened in those days was so ordinary, a reflection of the experiences that we all have in the days and weeks of our lives.

Some days are celebrations. Whether they understood it or not, that crowd that greeted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were caught up in a spreading fervor as he made his way into the city. Some did know what they were shouting about, but others were just chiming in because we all want and need a little celebration in our lives. As much as we might like to think of those folks as holy, a good number of them were like a crowd at a football game, cheering because everyone else is. After all, who doesn’t need a little joy in their everyday life?

Life is not all celebration, though. Sometimes it’s just confusion and uncertainty. When Jesus gathered his disciples on that Thursday night for that last meal with them, most, if not all, of them, had no idea what was happening. Listen closely to the story of the time together around that table, and you can feel the uneasiness, that sense of not knowing that leads to foreboding. It’s not hard to put yourself in the shoes of those disciples because such an emotion is part of life.

Then, of course, there is the trial and execution. Even after everything Jesus had told them, none of them was prepared for those events. How could they have been? Even with all the warnings, there had to be an expectation that there would be another way, some kind of rescue. I am reminded of a woman who was having a particularly hard time with her marriage. She said, “I didn’t think I was signing up for this.” But she was, because such moments happen all the time.

Such is life. And, that’s good news. During Holy Week, all packed into just a few days are joy and confusion and death. Right in the middle of it all, the center of attention, is Jesus. Jesus –right in the middle of the ordinary of life. That’s what makes all this Holy.

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?

Let's See Where This One Will Take us

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.