Friday, December 15, 2017

Repairing Christmas


Christmas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Now before you drag out the chains to tie me up and convict me of heresy, hear me out. Maybe I’m not talking about you and your family. I know you’re going to a lot of trouble to make this year’s Christmas the best ever. But for other people Christmas won’t be the perfect day they have hoped. 

I’m sure your day will be perfect. After all, look at all the work you’ve put into it. You mailed the cards, decorated the house, made a spreadsheet of gifts and bought them all and paid for them and now they’re wrapped and all you have left is to make a delicious egg nog for Christmas Eve. But there are some people who are not as perfect as you. 

Maybe they can’t get their finances to fluff out or get their family to suddenly become functional when it never has been before. We try to put it all on Hallmark’s shoulders, saying they created this greeting card fantasy Christmas but it’s everyone’s fault. Not only does the entire American economy pivot on this season but we see the past with rose-colored glasses then tell ourselves to top it. Then if and when the day doesn’t pan out to be perfect in our eyes, if the wrapping paper doesn’t glisten enough or family appreciate each other enough, we just dissolve into a puddle of failure. About 20 minutes after it’s over we find the day was not what we had hoped it would be and a black cloud of disappointment and unworthiness falls over us. 

Is it any wonder that one of the most popular activities on Christmas Day has become going to the movies? Everyone sits in a dark room without interacting with each other in any way. This trick allows you to be together but not really. It’s a great valve to let a little pressure off slowly and quietly. Everyone goes to separate corners. It’s nothing more than a Family-sized Time Out but with popcorn.

It’s amazing what the memory does in the eleven months that follow. It re-creates the day into something far more than it actually was. 

None of this, by the way, is Jesus’ fault. We have to take full responsibility for what we’ve done: taking one single day and spending over a month preparing for it, spending every available dime on stuff nobody even needs then cramming every relative you have around a table filled with more food than you eat all year. Yes, this monstrosity of a day is all our own making. We have turned one single day into some magnificent dream that ends up being mostly a dream after all. 

And where do the expectations come from? There’s a newsreel that runs constantly in the back of our minds playing home videos of years past with happy kids unwrapping presents under the tree. But our memories don’t play all of the videos. We forgot to take a home movie of the argument in the kitchen over the turkey or the kids fighting over a new toy. We forgot to take a home movie of the two aunts who aren’t speaking to each other or the uncle who drinks too much. And there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t have a record of because you can’t film inside someone’s mind. The disappointment that a gift wasn’t the right color or the panic over the hot check you wrote on Christmas Eve. 

Family dynamics are a tricky business on a good day. There is always a delicate balance of personalities within any group of more than two people. When you get a whole family together it becomes a circus act of walking a tightrope 50-feet in the air with no net. And their balance can be thrown off by almost anything. And this is on a GOOD day, people.

 Then, for Christmas you put more people onto the tightrope and make them put on a pink tutu like everybody else even though they would rather wear green spandex and you tell them to bring their own baggage and walk the tightrope carrying it. Then we ask everybody to sing and skip rope while they try to keep their balance. There’s no wonder this results in a heap of pink tutus on the ground.

Beaven and I got to talking about the 40 plus Christmases we’ve spent together. Not every single one of them was as good as we had hoped. One Christmas Day my father was in the hospital recovering from surgery. We had more than one tense year because Beaven’s mother was mad about whatever she was mad about that year. A few years we ran on such a hectic schedule going to three houses in one day plus our own that it was mind-blowing and nobody ended up totally happy. 

I know we aren’t the only people who have had the occasional miserable Christmas. For goodness sakes, people die on Christmas Day. I have one friend whose husband was murdered the week before Christmas and another one whose 16 year old son died in a horrible house fire just a few days before. And it was hell. Yet these same people went on to have other Christmas mornings that were filled with joy and laughter. Maybe not the same kind of joy as before but a more mellow joy, a repaired happiness kind of joy.

And none of this takes into account those individuals who will spend the day totally alone. I’m not talking about homeless people here. Because even the homeless have a community of sorts—a band of like-minded people who share the day with each other. I’m talking about people who don’t even have the community a homeless person has. There are some of us who for one reason or another don’t have any kind of family to share the day. The way we’ve evolved Christmas Day has declared them total failures. Do we really want to do this to each other?

Not every single Christmas can be perfect. But that doesn’t stop us from expecting it to be and then getting all pissed off when it doesn’t happen.

I call for a revolt. This insanity is not what Jesus would ask in His name.

Not that I want us all to take the presents back to the store or call up your aunt and tell her not to come. Let’s just take it down a notch. It’s just a day. Could we find it within ourselves to allow the day to maybe not live up to our expectations? Cut it a little slack? We could start small with just giving ourselves permission to be less than perfect. Just permission.

I’ll go first. Come on. It will be alright. Jesus will still get born. The Messiah will still come. 

Jesus did not come into the world expecting it to be perfect. His whole reason for coming was because the world is not perfect and needs someone to love us anyway.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

graduating

Over 13 years ago when our granddaughter started pre-kindergarten our daughter literally went "school shopping."

Years ago, in a move only slightly disguised as an attempt to avoid busing kids to achieve racial balance in the schools, Garland ISD declared anybody could go to any school they wanted as long as there was room.  Only if a school was full would a student be required to attend their neighborhood school. This proved to be a brilliant move for Garland.  We never had busing.  We had racial harmony. And we even ended up with equally balanced schools quite naturally as a result. Most schools revolved around the neighborhood but a lot of times students ended up going to a school based on the location of their parent's workplace and sometimes this was clear across town.

It gave power to the parents and the students and nobody could complain.   I've wondered why more cities haven't thought of the idea.

So when it came time for Emily to pick Sarah's school she had a lot of choices and what she ended up doing was brilliant.  She picked out about five schools near her work and would park in the school parking lot and watch the kids on the playground.  She told me she was looking for a "mixture" of kids.  A mixture of races and a mixture of economic level.  Emily said she didn't want Sarah to spend her days with kids who were all alike; she wanted her to experience all different kinds of people.

And that's how Sarah ended up at Dorsey Elementary School--based on the kids my daughter saw on the playground.  Those kids went with her to Coyle Middle School and graduated with her from Rowlett High School.

On the night they all graduated together, as the class of 2017 prepared to walk into the arena to the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory", they announced that the class had voted to have their foreign born classmates carry the flags of their own countries following the American flag. With that, the music started and a marvelous procession of colors began down three aisles that included about 13 flags in addition to Old Glory's red, white and blue.  There were the flags of Mexico, Guatemala, Great Britain, Spain, Cameroon, Japan, Russia, Nigeria, Iran and several others I didn't recognize.

graduation video

All these years Sarah had been immersed in the colors Emily had seen on the playground 13 years before.  Yet when I asked Sarah about the different countries it didn't register with her.  It was just her friends.  She had never noticed.


Saturday, September 09, 2017

Hard Things, Three Years Later


Facebook reminded me of something I posted three years ago today.  And I wanted to share it with you along with an update.  It was a dramatic event in the life of several people:  a car accident that almost killed our almost-granddaughter’s brother. This is the part where I could tell you that everything is fine now but that would be deceptive.  It’s been a long three years.  I think everyone including his parents have lost count of how many surgeries Dylan has had.  He is still waiting for his head to heal enough to get a plate implanted to replace enough skull to protect his brain. 

It’s been a hard three years.

Here’s my original post.  It was one of those that came so easily I know the Holy Spirit wrote it for me so I figure it might be worth sharing with you again.

===========

Things have been heavy at our house the last couple of days.  Our weekend started with great promise. Emily came with the girls for no particular reason.  It wasn’t a holiday, there were no “food standards” so I didn’t cook myself into a nervous breakdown. We had tacos and nachos and ice cream.  Everybody kind of came and went as they pleased. It was a relaxing time.

Sarah has her learner's permit and Emily is letting her drive. We went to the movies and Sarah drove home in the dark and did fine.  Essie is on schedule to get braces on her teeth so the popcorn at the movies was especially savored.  It was like “goodbye” popcorn.  And I just now remembered that she doesn't go by Essie any more.  She is Elisabeth now.  At least, at school.  In public.  Someday only our family will call her Essie. 

We’re getting to the part where they grow up. And I’m not sure how I feel about that, as if my opinion could stop time if I wanted to.

Saturday morning  just when the cinnamon rolls for a late breakfast came out of the oven Sarah came running into the house straight for her mom in the back room.  Things were quiet for a time while I wondered what the rush was.  When they emerged Sarah was crying and could only show me the message on her phone that her best friend’s brother had been in a car wreck.  A bad one.  A life-threatening, head injury, brain damage, scary one. Later, when the facts came in, it sounded like a classic beginner's mistake when the inexperienced driver hits the side of the road then over-corrects and over-corrects that and ends up rolling the car. Emily and the girls packed up and left for home to get in a position where they could help Savannah however she needed them to.

Damn this learning to drive process.  Damn youth.  Damn learning the hard way.

Savannah’s family is very involved in scouts and church.  The First Christian Church, two blocks away from the Garland town square, held a prayer vigil there.  Hundreds of people came to support them.  My daughter held her own daughter while the town sang “Amazing Grace.” Emily told me she could feel Sarah shaking in her arms.  
                                                                                                                                          
Growing up isn’t easy.  We want to keep our kids in a bubble and protect them from pain.  But I don’t know a single person who has managed to pull this off.  Instead, I know people who claim that if you learn from mistakes then they should be the smartest person on earth..

Expensive weddings didn't prevent both of our daughters from divorce. The best therapy in town didn’t keep me from being an alcoholic.  Yes, I’ve gotten used to the fact that I can’t drink and it has become but a minor footnote in my life. Do I wish it was different?  Of course. But it is what it is.

Sometimes things are just hard. And you can't buy a guarantee.

If you have a kid who is learning to drive you can spend hours and hours teaching them but the learning process is a process with no guarantees.  Learning is hard.  And on top of that, you can’t control the other drivers who share a freeway with them.

Beaven and I know the secret to driving on ice and snow.  When you hit an icy patch and lose control, our technique is to just let go of the wheel for a little bit until the wheels have a bite on the road surface again. You, in effect, let go of any control you think you have.  It’s no guarantee that you can prevent an accident this way but it’s the best recommendation from all the experts. It’s always worked for me.

Some times to re-gain control of our lives we have to let go for a while before we can hold the steering wheel again.  That’s what the prayer vigil for Dylan Godwin was all about.  It’s our best weapon.  It’s our only hope.

When you walk to the edge of all the light you have
And  take the first step into the darkness of the unknown
You must believe one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for you to stand upon
Or you will be taught to fly

Patrick Overton
The Leaning Tree, 1976


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tuesday Ice Cream



When Beaven retired a bunch of his buddies decided they wanted to stay connected so they set up a scheme to get together every Tuesday for lunch. A few years later Sarah started kindergarten and since he was already in town Beaven started picking her up from school on Tuesdays and taking her for ice cream.  Since he was in the neighborhood and all.  Bonding time with his granddaughter.  Being the hero granddad and all.  He did this all through elementary school.  Every Tuesday. 

When it came time for her to move to middle school he wondered if things would change.  He wasn’t sure if Sarah would still be cool with going for ice cream with her grandfather after school when she was in a higher grade now.  Would she be too old now?  So, he asked her.
“Sarah, do you still want to go out for ice cream on Tuesdays this year?”  And the answer was a resounding and indignant “yes!” 
By this time her sister was in school, too, a couple of grades behind her.  The only problem with picking up kids from two different schools was that they got out at different times.  He spent the next couple of years in a convoluted weekly routine of picking up Essie at the elementary school then killing time until Sarah got out at 4 o’clock at the middle school. 
I still wonder what a 70- year old grandfather does with a pre-teen girl to kill an hour.  What do they have in common?  What do they talk about?  It’s not like he’s a connoisseur of Barbies or the cast of High School Musical. 
But I do know that when Sarah went into high school a few years later we were sure that his magical time with them would now be over.  Grandfather couldn’t possibly be cool any more.  Ice cream couldn’t be that valuable of an enticement for their time.  Yet, once again, the response was an enthusiastic, “Yes!” when he asked if they wanted to continue weekly ice cream.
The schedule only got worse that year.  Sarah now got out at 2:30 but they had to wait for Essie at 4pm.  His whole day was spent in parking lots waiting for somebody to get out of school.
Then the fall of her junior year came and she had a drivers’ license.  There was no need for anyone to pick her up after school.  She had wheels and could get herself home.  She could drive her sister.  Indeed, she could drive the whole damned school if she wanted to.  She didn’t need her grandfather for anything.  We were sure the days of Tuesday ice cream were over.
But a couple of days before school started she called Beaven and said, “So, we’ll meet you at Braum’s after school on Tuesday, right?”
And that’s when it sunk in.  It never was about the ride home.  It never even was about the ice cream. 
Over the last 13 years Beaven has had a weekly appointment to spend time with his granddaughters.  One on one.  At a table across from each other at the Braum’s Ice Cream store next door to the KinderCare where their mother works.  They can talk about anything they want to. It’s just them; I’ve only gone a couple of times when I happened to be with him for some reason.  It’s their special magical time together.  Sometimes Emily joins them but not usually.  It’s a totally relaxing, unstructured time with their grandfather.  It doesn’t cost a lot of money.  He didn’t set out to do this for 13 years—it just happened.  But it has been one of the greatest traditions of our family. 
Yesterday was Sarah’s last ice cream day. Her graduation on Saturday will only be a footnote compared to the last ice cream Tuesday.
They let me crash the party yesterday and join them.  I expected a sad farewell, one moment of finality where it all ended but that didn’t happen.  Because it’s not ending.  They reminded me he will still come into town every Tuesday for lunch with his buddies during the summer and stop by for ice cream—he just won’t have to wait until school is out for the day.  Beaven has carved out a relationship with these two girls that makes its own rules and is comfortable with itself. 

He will keep taking Essie for ice cream next year and until she graduates—as long as she wants him to. They may expand on their own special gig: a visit to Barnes & Noble bookstore. Grandpa is always good for a trip to the bookstore in addition to ice cream.

It never was about the ice cream.  It was always about the relationship between a grandfather and his granddaughters.

We have already found an ice cream parlor in Denton near the UNT campus. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Truth


“Some of you may wonder why I have taken a stand regarding our President’s battle against journalism.  As a preacher of the Gospel, I consider myself to be a journalist.  To the best of my ability I report the truth as I have witnessed it.  I report on God’s on-going activity.  And like all journalists with integrity, I care deeply about the truth.  An attack on any truth whether it be of a political nature, scientific nature or spiritual nature, is an attack on all truth.  By calling honest reporting “fake news” our President, whether he intends it or not, is undermining truth itself.  I encourage you to take a stand for truth.  Demand truth.  Support truth.  Live for truth.  And if need be, die for truth.”

--Paul Burns

That was a facebook post from the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Garland where I still hold an affiliate membership after almost 40 years. I couldn’t be prouder of Paul than if I were his own sister.  Because he has put my own thoughts into words better than I could have done myself.

I studied journalism in high school and in college.  In high school they took us on a field trip to visit the Dallas Morning News.  After seeing the newsroom and presses they took us outside and stood us in front of their iconic fa├žade:

In case you don’t have your glasses here’s what is carved in stone on the front of the building of the newspaper I was raised reading every morning:

Build the news upon the rock of truth and righteousness.  Conduct it always upon the lines of fairness and integrity.  Acknowledge the right of the people to get from the newspaper both sides of every important question.
And just in case you didn't get the part about "both sides of every important question" right there on the curb in front of their building there is a line of newspaper boxes holding their competitors' papers so you can read them, too.
I grew up reading a newspaper that operated on those principles but I also was taught those principles.  In every journalism class I ever took two things were drilled into my head:  (1)  Get the facts right and (2) make sure you spell people’s names correctly.  Each one of those principles were sacred and breaking either rule was a violation of the highest degree.  In one case competence and in the other ethical. 

But Paul Burns takes journalism to an even higher calling when he reminds us how important truth is.  There’s even a scripture where Jesus tells us that He is the Truth.  John 14:6

The scriptures also tell us God is love.  I John 4:16

And Jesus tells us  that we should love each other.  John 13:34-35

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Truth and Love are two things that are in particular danger now and I worry about them a lot.  One of the pastors I had before Paul Burns introduced me to a phrase that has served me well, “Speak the truth in love.”  We are going to need a lot of that in the days to come and we’re going to have to reach down deep within ourselves to be able to speak that truth to power and to do it with love. 

This is going to be hard and people have already lost friends over the issue.  But the thing about truth—the very definition of truth—is that it doesn’t change.  The truth will be waiting.  When all the dust settles the truth will still be sitting there unsullied.  Unbowed.  Unchanged. True.
Like Jesus.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Annie


Her full name was really Little Orphan Annie because she came to us as an orphan. 

About 12 years ago Beaven and I were taking our walk on the back roads around our house when we passed a recently dead dog in a pasture.  She was a beautiful golden retriever but there wasn't anything we could do for her and on these roads there was no way to know who she belonged to, if anyone. The following day we took the same route and found the dog's puppy had joined her body and was guarding her.  And the puppy wouldn't leave her mother's side.

It was also Easter weekend. And the whole family was gathering.  And it was starting to rain.

So the rest of the next day was spent trying to entice the orphan puppy to trust us enough to leave her mother's body and come home with us.  Emily set out food for her.  Beaven bought a trap. Our entire Saturday was consumed with trying to get the puppy to come home with us.  By Saturday afternoon Emily and the girls had to go home and we gave up for the day.  Sunday morning, Easter, I gave it another try.  I crawled through the barbed wire fence to the pasture and sat by the mother's body.  Petting the mother's long-dead body to gain the puppy's trust. I sat in the soft rain and talked a little about Easter and resurrection and how that wasn't going to happen here and her best option was to come with me.  She would come only so close but no closer. Finally, I hit upon a solution.  We had Girlfriend, a dog who had come to us as a "dumped" dog who we could tell had recently nursed a litter of pups.  She was a puppy-less mother.  And here we had a motherless puppy.  They were a perfect match.  I went home, got Girlfriend on a leash and took her down the road to  meet our Little Orphan Annie.

It was Girlfriend who quietly took over the situation. With a few gentle wags of her tail and nuzzles of her nose she reassured Annie that we could be trusted.  I led them both home, Annie following Girlfriend.

Annie eventually became Emily's dog. She was part Chow and strong and stout and fiercely protective.  She lay outside Emily's bedroom door every night to guard her and her two girls.

Time passes the way it does and the inevitable happened.  And tonight for the first time in a long time she won't be there outside Emily's door.  She will be with her mother. And with Girlfriend. And there will be some sad folks here missing her.

I got word of Annie's passing this morning while I was out of town at a retreat and about to go to worship. A few minutes later we gathered in a large room in a circle for communion. The worship leader introduced the service and said that this might be a picture of what eternity might look like.  As I looked around the circle I could picture some of my departed friends sitting there in the room with me sharing communion with us.  Then I found myself picturing everyone with their departed pets--cats on their laps and dogs at their feet. A few birds perched on their shoulders.  It was a busy scene.  Busy and happy.

And it was such a natural thought.  Sure!  If I'm going to get to go to heaven --the kind of heaven I want to go to will have all my pets there.  Otherwise, it won't be heaven.  And Annie will be there. And she won't be an orphan anymore.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Chaos Doesn't Give Up. Neither Does Hope

I had a great lunch today with an old college friend.  After she left I went out to my labyrinth field to begin laying out this year's new and improved labyrinth.  The day was gorgeous with clear blue skies and the air was still.  It wasn't too hot or too cool or too windy.  Actually, it was perfect. 

But when I got in the house I found out on Facebook that there had been tornadoes in New Orleans while we were enjoying our lunch.  And, worst of all, it had hit somewhere near and dear to my heart--my home for several months--the very building I had lived in while I served there during the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.  Facebook friends from my days at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance posted a video of the Volunteer Village where I served as Village Manager in New Orleans in 2008.  One of the tornadoes that hit the town today pretty much destroyed the building.  An AmeriCorps team member sent out a video and it looks bad. The second floor is gone.


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There's great sadness at its loss because Olive Tree was everyone's favorite.  It was the nicest of all the volunteer villages.  While the other villages were basically vinyl tents this camp was a compound of two brick buildings; the former church sanctuary that we used for a dining hall and offices and the education building with individual classrooms that we used for dorm rooms.  It was clean and easy to keep clean, warm and dry. As someone who battled mildew in Mississippi I can tell you this was a major deal.  There is also irony here because of all the villages it was the sturdiest.  No one ever worried about the wind blowing it away the way we did the other camps.

I haven't figured out how to post a Facebook video here on my blog and if you know how, please let me know.  I do have this one photo I can show you of the shower trailer that breaks my heart because I watched a Presbyterian church from Kilmarnock, Virginia put the finishing touches on installing it.  I remember it brand new.



I'm still kind of in shock at seeing this building torn to pieces because it brings back so many memories. 

My favorite memory is of the party Project Homecoming had in our dining hall on the night of the third anniversary of Katrina.  We had all heard that there was another hurricane on its way to NOLA.  It was predicted to be Katrina's twin.  It was named Gustav and we were under a mandatory evacuation order.  Everybody needed to get home to pack up and leave town.  But for this evening, for this 3-year celebration at least, we were going to party. We ate each other's home cooking like there was no tomorrow because for all we knew there wasn't.  We had a jazz band play the Second Line and we danced. We waved our napkins and shrugged around the room, daring anything to ruin our good mood.  We hugged and told each other we loved them.  Our guests went home to pack up their homes.  Then we packed up the camp--copiers, computers, refrigerators, freezers, files and phones.  I tied down the port-a-potties, locked the shower trailer and turned off the gas.  And drove north not knowing if I would ever see the building again.

We would return in three weeks to find the building untouched.

Today the building's luck ran out.  Judging from the video I saw it looks pretty much destroyed.  The second floor looks gone.  The picture window of the lounge where I watched TV for news of Hurricane Gustav is broken.  The courtyard with signs of everyone's hometown is littered with debris.  I couldn't see the shower trailer in the video but I don't have much hope for it judging from the debris I could see coming from the storage building.  I saw the camp gate mangled into a pretzel and remembered locking it every night. I still remember the combination.  I guess it doesn't matter now.  I looked at the lawn and remembered mowing it, knowing all the potholes to avoid in the turf. 

I knew that camp.  It had been my home.  And now it was ruined.

The building was still being used to house volunteers when the tornado hit today.  I stayed there last year when I went back for the tenth anniversary of Katrina.  I slept in the bunk beds they provided for the volunteers Project Homecoming hosts who continue to go into the community to rebuild New Orleans.

After Presbyterian Disaster Assistance transferred their work over to Project Homecoming they partnered with AmeriCorps and both agencies used the building to house volunteers who would come from all over the United States to work on houses. 

Yes, we are still rebuilding New Orleans from the damage Hurricane Katrina caused.  The storm was that bad.  The volunteers are that good.

The motto of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is "Out of Chaos, Hope."  I know that Hope never gives up.  And apparently, neither does Chaos. 

I also know the volunteers.  I was a volunteer before I was a village manager.  The volunteers will be there as soon as they get the approval to help clean up the camp.  They will stay in hotels when the camp isn't available.  And they will continue to come to New Orleans. They love the city.  The volunteers rebuilding New Orleans won't stop just because a disaster recovery camp is damaged. 

Especially now.  Because now there is even more work ahead.  Ours wasn't the only building damaged.

Chaos doesn't give up.  Neither does Hope.

Here's the link to volunteer.   PDA  You might need to give them a while to get organized before they are able to accommodate volunteers.  And if you can't go in person, please consider a financial gift.  This stuff ain't cheap.

In the meantime, here's a picture that Sue La Rue sent me last summer.  She loves her New Orleans flowers and I thought of her today.  A white flower of Hope.