Everyday Heroes

They are all around us, and we see them every day, even if we don’t always recognize them for who they are.

Everyday Heroes.

Surely you have seen these people. You might even be one yourself. If so, thank you. Who are they?

They are the firefighters who run INTO burning buildings, when everyone else is running out. They are the police officers who run TOWARDS the sound of gunfire. They are the nurses who help patients with unpleasant symptoms, especially when those patients can’t help themselves.

They are the teachers who buy school supplies out of their own pockets and offer encouraging words to struggling students. They are the pastors who quietly sit with families that have gotten bad news. They are the linemen who climb utility poles in the cold and wet, so the rest of us can stay warm and dry.

They often go unsung, unnoticed and unappreciated. They watch as our society cheers athletes, rock stars, actors – people most of us will never interact with or personally know. But our everyday heroes hear no cheering crowds, and nobody is paying them much attention. And yet, every day, day after day, they quietly go about their business of helping other people, being a friend, making a difference.

They are Mr. Holland. They are George Bailey.

Surely you have known such people. A Sunday School teacher. A little league coach. A Scout leader. They are the folks who get involved in other people’s lives in a positive way and make a difference. They’re not flashy, and they’re not celebrated. But they’re remembered as the people who care.

And here’s the good news: we can all be in that category, if we’re willing to take a moment, to offer a kind word or a shoulder, or a sympathetic ear. I was a pastor for a long time, and I’m convinced that when tragedy strikes, people don’t remember very many of the things that other people say. But they remember who was there.

You can be a hero today. Somewhere around you right now, a kid needs a mentor. A neighbor needs a friend. A co-worker needs someone to talk to. The Experienced Citizens Center could use some more drivers to deliver meals. You can do that. We all can – the question is, will we? Jesus said that if all we do is offer a cup of cold water in His name, we would certainly be rewarded in His Kingdom.

It’s not too late to put this on your list of things to do for 2021. Be a more caring person. Give a damn. Get involved. Make a difference.

Now, more than ever, we need all the heroes we can get.

A Little Change in Your Future

When I was in the third grade (yes, a LONG time ago!), I was in Cub Scouts. One of the badges I was working on required me to start and organize some kind of collection. Now it so happened that my dad owned a gas station in those days, and my mom would go to the bank for him a couple of times a week, to make deposits and get change for the station, including some coins. She was opening one of these newly-acquired rolls of nickels one day, when to her great surprise, she discovered that the entire roll was made up of Buffalo Nickels – forty of them, to be exact. She gave me that roll to use for my project, and we got one of those little blue coin folders.

And that was how my interest in coins and coin collecting began.

I tell you that story because I went to the grocery store the other day and got a little change back from my purchase. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that evening, when I was emptying my pockets, I discovered that I had received a Buffalo Nickel back as part of my change. It’s thoroughly worn down, and the date is pretty much unreadable – I think it’s 1930, but I can’t be sure – but that famous Native American profile still stares stoically on the front, and that beautiful, shaggy, American Bison still stands proudly on the back of the coin.

Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 to 1938. The design actually began in 1911, as part of the Taft Administration’s efforts to beautify American coinage. Sculptor James E. Fraser received the commission to design the coin, and in spite of some objections, it went into production two years later. Unfortunately, although it was a beautiful design, the coin was subject to premature wear and degradation. After the minimum 25-year circulation period, it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel, which we still use today. However, Fraser’s design is still popular, and it has been used on various commemorative coins and some American gold pieces designed for collectors.

A 1937 “Buffalo Nickel.” The “F” under the date is for the designer, James Fraser, and the “D” under “Five Cents” indicates that it was minted in Denver.

So, who was the Native American whose portrait adorns this coin? Good question. Fraser himself gave several different accounts, but it seems most likely that it was patterned after a combination of two or three men.  Fraser was on record as saying once, “my purpose was not to make a portrait, but a type.” The American Bison on the rear was likely modeled after an animal in one of the zoos in New York City; again, Fraser’s story changed a few times – sometimes he said it was at the Bronx Zoo, sometimes at the Central Park Zoo.

Besides premature wearing, the coin had other problems. For some reason, the dies which were used to strike the blanks wore out at an unusually fast rate. Changes ordered by the mint to try and extend the life of the metal dies just made the problem worse. Even on newly minted coins, the date quickly rubbed off and became illegible; the “Five Cents” and other lettering was gone almost as fast. Nobody objected when the order to replace it was given.

But I just love this coin. When it was first released, it was praised for its bold American themes – the rugged Indian face and that majestic bison, more commonly known as a buffalo. It’s well-known that bison were hunted almost to extinction, and only through the dedicated efforts of ranchers and preservationists were they able to make a comeback, to be saved for future generations. There’s a lesson there, about the true spirit of America and never giving up.

Beyond that, finding that coin in my pocket the other day is a reminder of the little blessings that come our way, if we will take the time to notice and appreciate them. In this case, I received the blessings of recalling a sweet memory and an interesting little story and savoring a little patriotic pride.

Not bad for such a little coin.

Changes, Changes

Someone has said that change is the only constant. Or as a character in a movie once said, “Nothing changes but the changes.”

The truth is, change is always with us. And most of us don’t like it. We get used to things being a certain way, and we want them to stay that way. Even when we don’t like something, if it’s familiar, we often prefer keeping it. “Better the devil you know,” we say.

But if life teaches us anything, it’s that everything changes. Parents grow old and die. Children grow up and leave. Neighbors come, neighbors go. Jobs end, and jobs begin.

It can be very depressing if we dwell on it with the wrong perspective. But it doesn’t have to be.

When change comes, we can either become angry and sullen about having our routine upset, or we can be thankful for the blessing we had and the time we had it. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that God gives us glimpses of heavenly joy, but only for a time. That way, we would understand the eternal joy that awaits, but we would never mistake this world for our true home. I don’t know if I agree completely with that or not, but it’s worth thinking about.

Another thing about change: every change is an opportunity for growth. It’s true, we like things the way we get used to them, but it’s also true that every familiar thing was once UN-familiar. I hated coffee the first time I tried it. Now I drink it every morning. Every best friend was once a stranger. Every golfer had to go through picking up a club and making that first ugly, awkward swing. The changes around us present us with a wonderful buffet of new opportunities, new experiences, possibilities for personal growth.

An old proverb says, “Be not the first to embrace the new, nor the last to forsake the old.” I think there’s some wisdom in there.

One other thing about change: the constant changes in this life and in this world, make our hearts yearn for the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the One who does NOT change, the One whose love is always constant and whose compassions never fail. So I hold on to the unchanging Eternal One, and He gives me the strength and courage to face the changes I meet.

Bring it on.

God in the ‘Hood

Ask most people what Bible passages they think about in connection with Christmas, and they will often point to the well-known story of Mary & Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, from Luke 2. Some people will throw in Matthew 2, and the story of the Wise Men, and the Christmas Star, the wicked King Herod and the murder of the innocents. Those are certainly great stories, and they for sure give us the details of Jesus’ birth.

But none of those is my favorite Christmas Bible verse.

The scripture verse I like best at this time of year is John 1:14. Most translations will say something like, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory – glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” But I especially like the way that the Bible paraphrase “The Message” puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good way of expressing exactly what Jesus did when he came to earth. Here’s what I mean.

Moving into a neighborhood reflects a choice. It’s possible to accidentally pass through a given area or section of town, but you don’t MOVE IN unless you mean to do so. Moving into a neighborhood means you chose it – and you probably chose it for a reason. There may be many different reasons why someone would pick a given neighborhood, but obviously, it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to do some planning, some preparation, and spend some time and effort in the process.

The Bible says that God sent Jesus “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). In other words, it wasn’t some kind of last-minute, half-hearted effort. It was a deliberate choice that the Father and the Son made to enter into our humanity, to provide the example of how we ought to live and the atonement for when we could not. Jesus chose to become like us, so that we could become like him.

Every neighborhood has its own blessings – and challenges. We all recognize that there’s no such thing as a perfect neighborhood; we also know that every neighborhood has its own unique advantages. If all we do is complain about problems, we will miss the good gifts around us.

When Jesus became human, he willingly accepted the limitations of his humanity. He couldn’t be everywhere at once anymore. He accepted the frailties of a physical body. He voluntarily limited himself so that he could fully experience the human condition. But he also received the blessing of feeling wonder at the beauty and marvel that is creation, and could understand from personal experience the love of the Father for his children.

Neighborhoods invite relationships. When we live close to others, we build relationships. Not every neighbor becomes a best friend, but we understand the value of good neighbors and looking out for each other.

As a “neighbor,” Jesus has entered into our lives, and he invites us to enter into a relationship with him. Really, that’s what Christianity is – not going to church, not keeping a bunch of rules, but being in a relationship with Jesus, sharing life together. It’s not complicated.

Jesus said that one of the two most important commandments was to love our neighbors as ourselves. He demonstrated that truth by becoming a neighbor to us, and inviting us to become his neighbor and friend, both now and into eternity.

Jesus in the manger. God in the neighborhood. Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Guest

One of the greatest blessings of my life was to be the host of A.M. Sunday, a Gospel music radio show on KVRP in Haskell, Texas. I used to take requests, and every year at Christmas, I’d get requests for Grandpa Jones reading “The Christmas Guest.” The only problem was, I didn’t HAVE a copy of him doing that piece, and this was long before you could simply download the song from iTunes or pull it up on YouTube. But I DID have a version done by Reba McEntire, and I would play that. And I understood why people liked it so much, because I absolutely fell in love with it.

There have been many different versions of this story. This one was written by American poet Helen Steiner Rice, arranged by Grandpa Jones and Billy Walker. An older telling was by a French pastor and author, Ruben Saillens, and another by Leo Tolstoy.  They’re all based on the words of Jesus when He said, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”

So whether you heard it back in the day on “A.M. Sunday,” or if this is your first encounter with this poem, I hope it blesses you as much as it always has me. And Merry Christmas!

THE CHRISTMAS GUEST

It happened one day near December’s end,
Two neighbors called on an old friend,
And they found his shop so meager and lean
Made gay with thousand bows of green.

And Conrad was sitting with face a-shine,
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched a twine,
And he said, “Old friends, at dawn today
When the cock was crowing the night away,
The Lord appeared in a dream to me
And said, ‘I’m coming your guest to be.’

“So I’ve been busy with feet astir,
Strewing my shop with branches of fir.
The table is spread and the kettle is shined,
And over the rafters the holly is twined

“Now I’ll wait for my Lord to appear,
And listen closely so I will hear His step
As He nears my humble place.
And I’ll open the door and look on His face.”

So his friends went home and left Conrad alone,
For this was the happiest day he had known.
For long since, his family had passed away,
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day.

But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas Guest,
This Christmas would be the dearest and best.
So he listened with only joy in his heart,
And with every sound he would rise with a start.
And look for the Lord to be at his door,
Like the vision he’d had a few hours before.

So he ran to the window after hearing a sound,
But all he could see on the snow-covered ground
Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn,
And all of his clothes were ragged and worn.

But Conrad was touched and he went to the door,
And he said, “Your feet must be frozen and sore.
I have some shoes in my shop for you,
And a coat that will keep you warmer, too.”

So with grateful heart the man went away,
But Conrad noticed the time of day,
And wondered what made the Lord so late
And how much longer he’d have to wait.

When he heard a knock, he ran to the door,
But it was only a stranger once more:
A bent old lady with a shawl of black,
With a bundle of kindling piled on her back.
She asked for only a place to rest,
But that was reserved for Conrad’s Great Guest.

But her voice seemed to plead, “Don’t send me away!
Let me rest for a while on Christmas Day.”
So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup,
And told her to sit at the table and sup.

But after she left, he was filled with dismay,
For he saw that the hours were slipping away.
And the Lord hadn’t come as he said he would,
And Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood.

When out of the stillness he heard a cry,
“Please help me, and tell me where am I?”
So again he opened his friendly door,
And stood disappointed as twice before.
It was only a child who had wandered away
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day.

Again, Conrad’s heart was heavy and sad,
But he knew he should make the little girl glad.
So he called her in and he wiped her tears,
And quieted all her childish fears.

Then he led her back to her home once more.
But as he entered his own darkened door,
He knew the Lord was not coming today,
For the hours of Christmas had passed away.

So he went to his room and knelt down to pray,
And he said, “Dear Lord, why did You delay?
What kept You from coming to call on me?
For I wanted so much Your face to see.”

When soft in the silence a voice he heard,
“Lift up your head, for I kept my word.
Three times my shadow crossed your floor,
And three times I came to your lowly door.

“I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet;
And I was the woman you gave something to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street.
Three times I knocked, and three times I came in,
And each time I found the warmth of a friend.
Of all the gifts, love is the best,
And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest.”

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress…

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

Christmas at the Movies

I was excited when I learned that the theme for this year’s Haskell Chamber of Commerce Christmas parade was going to be “Christmas Movies.” Because I love movies. And I love Christmas! So naturally, I love Christmas movies. (By the way, the parade this year is scheduled for Saturday, December 12, leaving from the Civic Center at 6:30 pm, and following the usual route.)

Now, I don’t want to start any arguments about whether a particular film should or should not be included in the Christmas movie list – I’ll leave that up to you, gentle reader. If you want to include Die Hard or Home Alone on your list, that’s perfectly fine and entirely up to you. And with that disclaimer, in alphabetical order, here are some personal Christmas movie favorites.

A Christmas Carol (Made for TV, 1984) “Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of this story I am going to relate.” So begins my favorite version of this familiar story by Charles Dickens. It is a British-American production, released to theaters in Great Britain, and on television here. George C. Scott plays the miserly, lonely Ebenezer Scrooge, with David Warner as his faithful employee, Bob Cratchit; and Roger Rees, as the good-hearted nephew, Fred Holywell. Scott does a masterful job of making Scrooge into a believable bad guy, so that the audience is genuinely happy for him after he is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, and the three Christmas spirits, and experiences a change of heart.

Holiday Affair (1949) This is probably the least well known of any of these films, but I just love this little movie. It stars Robert Mitchum and a very young Janet Leigh (only 22 at the time), who plays a war widow with a young son. She is already engaged to one man, but when she meets Mitchum, she can’t deny the attraction she feels. Robert Mitchum is sensational in a break from his usual film noir tough guy roles. It’s a terrific story with a strong supporting cast; look for a young Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on M*A*S*H) as an exasperated police lieutenant trying to sort things out at one point.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) If “Holiday Affair” is one of the least-known Christmas movies, this may be one of the best known. Jimmy Stewart stars in this classic tale of an ordinary man who discovers the difference his life has made in the lives of so many others. It was the first movie he made after coming back from World War II, and he and director Frank Capra wanted it to be a good one. Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, and Gloria Grahame are just a few of the others who help make this a movie for the ages. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Attaboy, Clarence.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and an 8-year-old Natalie Wood star in this whimsical fantasy about an old gentleman who is hired to be a department store Santa; the only problem is, he thinks he is the real Kris Kringle. The scene where Santa meets a young orphan from Holland who can’t speak English, and he begins to converse with her in perfect Dutch, is wonderful, as is the movie’s climactic courtroom scene.

White Christmas (1954) This may be our family’s favorite Christmas movie. And yes, I know that it’s basically a remake of “Holiday Inn,” but I like this version better. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play war buddies who have become show business producers, when they meet a sister act featuring Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. My personal favorite moment is when Bing sings to Rosemary, “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep, counting my blessings.” Screen veterans Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes co-star.

Finally, I realize that there are a LOT of really good – and some very popular – Christmas movies that are not on this list. I’m not saying my list contains the finest holiday movies ever made; they just happen to be my personal picks. I had to make some hard choices to cut it down to only five, so if I have omitted your favorite, I’m sorry. Polar Express. A Christmas Story. Elf. The Shop Around the Corner. Christmas in Connecticut. There are LOTS more to pick from.

If you want to read more about any of these, I’d suggest Christmas in the Movies – 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, by Jeremy Arnold, published by the Turner Classic Movies channel. And no, they’re not paying me to say this, but it’s a great look at some terrific holiday films, and I highly recommend it for any movie fan on your Christmas gift list.

Save me some popcorn.

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before Him with thanksgiving
and extol Him with music and song. - Psalm 95:1, 2

Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan. When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.” I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that. I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck. So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

My grandmother, Sallie McMillan – “Sa-Sa”

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – I recall that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender. But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad. It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.

Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad. What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas. Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today. And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your
gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious
about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your
minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys. The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game. The ’Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley. He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about. And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history. After leading the ’Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored. We won 24-23. It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife. I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as Revelation. Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record. (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?) Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010. My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her. My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wild & woolly bunch of us at their home in Spring. He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes. I made one of my Jack Daniels Chocolate Pecan Pies. We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together. I am thankful for my job and for all of the blessings we enjoy. I am thankful for Jesus. And I know that the blessings I have received are not mine exclusively to enjoy but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your holiday is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever the circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart. Happy Thanksgiving!

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
 and His courts with praise;
 Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.
 For the Lord is good and His love endures forever;
 His faithfulness continues through all generations.
 Psalm 100:4-5 

What’s Cooking?

Sometimes, if you stay open to trying new things, you’ll discover something about yourself that you never knew before.

Case in point: I’ve discovered that I love to cook.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve always loved to grill. I think most guys do – there’s just something about an open fire, and being outside, and sizzling meat cooking on a hot steel grill that appeals to a lot of men. But I’m talking about more than that.

Several years ago, my family and I moved into a neighborhood ministry called “The Friendship House,” on Abilene’s north side near Hendrick Hospital. Part of my job was to host regular block parties and other get-togethers where we would eat and visit and get to know one another – and that meant I had to fix a main course, and the neighbors would bring the side dishes.

So I learned to cook. And in the process, I also learned how much I enjoy planning and preparing the meals, trying out new recipes, and experimenting with different ingredients and techniques. (I’ve also discovered that sometimes, even failures can still taste pretty good!)

Then a few years later, when I resigned from that job and moved back to Southeast Texas to be my elderly dad’s caregiver, I was able to fix his favorite meals and make his closing days a little more enjoyable. It was a real treat for me, to share those dinners with him.

Enjoying a meal with family and friends has a number of genuine benefits. For one thing, food creates community. I’ve seen it more than once – people arrive as strangers and leave as friends. There’s something about the act of eating a meal together that helps people tear down the walls they’ve built and get to know others in a way that few other activities can.

It should come as no surprise that, in the Bible, one of the most common images God uses to describe heaven is a fabulous feast. For example, in Isaiah 25:6, we read, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines.” The prophet goes on to say that in that day, God will “swallow up death forever,” and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

And speaking of creating community: in Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.”

Here’s another reason I enjoy it: cooking links generations together. My mom has been gone for over ten years, but when I drag out one of her recipes, in her own handwriting, and make that special item, it’s like she is right there with me. And when my kids eat it, they know that at some level, it’s with love from Maw-Maw. The same with that Roast Venison recipe from Grandpa Garison, or Aunt Bib’s Christmas Divinity. We tell the family stories about those loved ones, and it’s like they are with us again, in a very special way.

I have an Hispanic friend who told me about growing up in a home where they always fixed tamales for Christmas, and how multiple generations would be working together in the kitchen. Everyone had a specific job to do, she said, and one of the ways you knew you were getting older was that you were given a more important job to do in helping make the tamales. And as she talked about working with her beloved “Abuela” (grandmother) and her precious “Tía” (aunt), both long since deceased, it was obvious that this was more than just something good to eat.

My wife and I were talking the other day about what a significant part food has played in so many of our family gatherings. Everyone has a favorite dish, and so as we fix that item, a little extra love goes into it while we think about that family member. Sharing together in a good meal makes for very special memories that can span generations, and even lifetimes.

One final blessing: food connects us with our Creator. When we are cooking a meal from scratch, we know that there is more to it than just opening a can or removing the plastic and sticking something in the microwave. When we have handled those raw veggies, just the way they came from a green plant – whether we picked them out at the grocery store, or the farmer’s market, or our own garden – when we have peeled it and put love and time into preparing it, then we are reminded of God’s gracious bounty. When we have cut and cooked that meat, or scrambled those eggs, or whatever we’re doing, it’s an opportunity to be connected more closely with the “Giver of every good and perfect gift.” It’s also a good time to be thankful to the farmers, the ranchers, the grocers and others who were God’s partners in helping to grow and provide that food for us.

The holidays are coming, and even in this season of a terrible pandemic, even when we can’t be together, we can still be thankful for the blessings of food, family and friends.

My Favorite Season

Autumn leaves frame a railroad track. And no, I didn’t take this picture, but if YOU did, please let me know. I’ll be happy to give you credit, or take down the picture.

I love autumn. It’s absolutely my favorite season of the year, for several reasons.

Autumn means we’ve made it through another long, hot, dry Texas summer. Autumn means crisp mornings and warm afternoons, but with a hint of coolness. It’s the time for campfires and hot chocolate, hayrides, and a good bowl of chili.

The fall means football, the beautiful fall foliage, and of course, anticipating the holidays bringing fun and fellowship with family and friends. And one generation telling the next the stories of what it was like.

Autumn can be a sad time for some people. We think about broken relationships and “what might have been.” We grieve the empty chair around the table, and we remember the ones we’ve lost since the last time we were together as a family. Autumn can be a time for regret, or becoming distracted by unmet goals, but it doesn’t have to be. We can make autumn a wonderful season of refreshment and reminding ourselves of what is best, if we will.

Here are some thoughts on making the most of your autumn –

Explore some new colors. One of the best things about the fall is the bright colors that we see around us –beautiful crimson, the harvest gold, bright yellow, all shades of brown. Autumn is a great time to take up a new hobby, read that book you’ve been meaning to start, take a trip you’ve been dreaming about making. Trying new things can be as invigorating as a cool fall morning, so go for it!

Let go of anything holding you back. Trees are shedding old leaves and dropping their dead stuff. Sometimes we need to do the same. Let go of past regrets, self-condemnation and old grudges. Let bygones be bygones and forgive. We forgive, not because others deserve it, but because WE do. As long as you’re holding onto that pain, you’re giving the offender the power to keep hurting you. When you forgive, their power over you is destroyed. So forgive. And forgive yourself, as well.

Appreciate blessings while they last. Autumn in Texas doesn’t last long; winter will soon be here. We need to appreciate the blessings that God gives us while they last. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

In other words, enjoy the blessings that God gives, but realize they are never permanent.

Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed and happy Autumn!