A Good and Gentle Man

In my days at Dallas Christian College, back in the 1970s, I was blessed to have a number of excellent professors.  Some were great thinkers.  Some were excellent students of the word.  But I never knew a better man of God than Ronnie Hanna.

Brother Ronnie, as we called him, served 18 years at DCC, sometimes as a professor, sometimes also as an administrator.  But his real talent was as a man who loved people.  He had one of the most amazing memories I have ever seen for remembering names and faces.  On more than one occasion, I saw him – without any notes – go around a room of a hundred people or more, from all across Texas, and introduce every one of them, telling something interesting about each person.  He genuinely loved people, and more than that, he genuinely loved the Lord’s church.  In his time at DCC, he toured extensively throughout Texas and the Southwest on behalf of the college, and I think once he met someone, he never forgot.

And he told the corniest, goofiest preacher jokes you have ever heard.

During my four years there, I was blessed to get to travel with him a lot, visiting different churches, so I heard all those jokes many, MANY times.  Driving down the road, he would point to a field of fresh-cut grass and say, “Hay!”  If there was a period of silence in the van, he would say, “Look! What’s that up there in the road — a head?”  He would pull up to a railroad crossing and announce, “I believe a train was just by here.”  When some gullible freshman would ask, “How can you tell?,” he would say, “It left behind its tracks.”

Sometimes he would say, “Don’t be bitter – reconsider!”  I never knew exactly what that meant, but he said it a lot.

By his own admission, Ronnie could sometimes be, shall we say, directionally challenged.  He generally knew – approximately – what part of town a given church building was located, and he would get in the right area, but then he’d have to drive around a while to find the exact location.  Once we got there, he would just chuckle in his good-natured way, and say that he knew where he was all along, and that he was just taking us to our destination via a “scenic tour.”

One of his favorite soap boxes was a personal mission to stamp out euphemisms – saying “heck” or “darn” instead of their unrated counterparts.  We used to sometimes make fun of him (behind his back) about it, but I know that He took seriously the command of Jesus to let your yes, be yes, and your no, be no.  And he had the courage of his convictions.

Brother Ronnie taught “Life of Christ,” which was a freshman-level class.  One of the first things he covered was to define for us, exactly what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of God – “The reign and rule of God in the hearts and lives of men.”  To this day, I’ve never heard a better definition, and I’ve used his definition, without exception, every time I have ever taught on the Kingdom.  It’s not a place, it’s not something in the future – God’s Kingdom is here and now, and it’s made up of all those who humble themselves before the living God to let Him rule in their hearts.

The other thing I remember about his Life of Christ class – he had us read “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Great stuff, life-changing stuff.

I had Ronnie for other classes, and he taught me other things, but if for only those two things, I will always be grateful to have been his student.

After he left Dallas, Ronnie and his beloved wife Janet moved to Colorado, where he ministered for many years.  They moved back to the Dallas-area after his retirement.  He passed away last week, and is being remembered Monday and Tuesday in services on the DCC campus.

But I can’t get over  to Dallas to share with others who knew and loved him, so this is my tribute to him, and sharing my thoughts about him.  He was a decent, good and gentle man, who loved his God and loved his family.  And he loved the Lord’s church, and spent his life ministering before the Lord and training others who would do the same.

Thanks for everything, Brother Ronnie.  It was an honor to know you.  But I wonder: when Jesus showed your mansion in glory, if he took you around the block once or twice, just for a “scenic tour.”  If He did, well, don’t be bitter – reconsider!

Recent Reads

Read any good books lately?

I have always enjoyed reading.  Good books can take you to other places, other times, even other realities.  I find that some books are like old friends with which I never get tired.  Books can confirm what you believe or make you think about things you never considered.  It’s not unusual for me to be reading two or three books at once.

I have downloaded the GoodReads app on my iPad, and one of these days, I may get around to learning how to use it.  Meanwhile, here are a few of my recent reads and some related thoughts.  You may notice there’s not much fiction on this list.  I don’t have anything against novels – and for sure, I have a few favorites from that category – but for the last few years, I find myself reading mostly non-fiction.

Imagine you’re sitting at a table with two really smart, articulate  guys, and they’re talking about something that is wonderfully thought-provoking and challenging.  That’s the premise behind Red Letter Revolution, by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo.  Both of these guys are known for being willing to ask hard questions and challenge conventional Christian thinking on difficult subjects.  Here, the question is, “What if Jesus really meant what He said?”  They proceed to discuss how that question plays out in various areas of life, and you get to be a fly on the wall, listening to their conversation.  It is discomforting, uplifting, and I am enjoying it very much, even the parts that I want to argue with them.

In This Land of Strangers, Robert Hall considers how the breakdown of relationships in our society is contributing to so many of the problems that we face today – dysfunctional families, total lack of trust between employers and employees, suspicion against any institution, and more.  Interestingly enough, Hall approaches the topic from a businessman’s point of view, with some fascinating results.  He has a nice mixture of statistics and empirical data, with enough good stories thrown in to keep it interesting.

When Helping Hurts by Brain Fikkert and Steve Corbett absolutely turned my world upside down when I first read it.  I re-read it not long ago, and it’s still great.  Many people have the attitude that those in poverty are broken, and they’re poor because they’re lazy, or stupid, or are suffering from their own bad choices.  That’s undoubtedly true in some cases.  But these guys argue that WE ARE ALL BROKEN – it’s just that some forms of brokenness show up in more visible ways.  As a result, our own brokenness leads us to doing things to “help,” that actually do more harm than good.  The authors include some good suggestions on how to make a difference without becoming part of the problem.

All of us know that eating a low-fat diet is healthy, right?  That we should be eat lots of grains, count calories and get plenty of exercise.  Well, as it turns out, not so much.

In Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes argues – and has the stats to prove – that low-fat, high-carb diets are about the most UNHEALTHY thing we can do, especially for those of us that struggle with Diabetes.  This is one of the books my doctor recommended to me, and it’s well worth the read.

Finally, here’s one bit of fiction for you: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I will admit, I was not a Tolkien fan growing up, but I very much am now.  My daughter Brittany gave me a copy of this, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The new Peter Jackson movie is coming out before the end of the year, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Hobbits are inoffensive little beings who like to tend their gardens and enjoy life’s simple pleasures.  One day, Gandalf the Wizard shows up at the home of his hobbit friend, Bilbo Baggins, and more or less tricks him into going off on a grand adventure.  Along the way, Bilbo finds the One Ring, which was the subject of the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it’s only a small part of this particular story.  Tolkien was a master storyteller, and this is a great one.

So – read any good books lately?

Meet Archie McMillan

Let me tell you about a man I used to know. His name was James Archie McMillan. Most people called him Arch or Archie. I called him Paw-Paw.

He was my mother’s dad. He was born in 1912 in Hardin County, Texas – that’s deep in the Big Thicket country of Southeast Texas, and he was the youngest of five boys born to James Duncan and Mary McMillan. As a matter of fact, Paw-Paw was a Leap Day baby, born February 29, 1912 – just over a hundred years ago. He married my grandmother, Sallie Walker, in 1934, and they had two children – my mom, Tommie Beth, and my uncle, Duncan.

My Paw-Paw described himself as a “jack of all trades, and a master of none.” He was the first guy I ever heard use that phrase. He worked in the oil field as a driller; if you’re not familiar with oil field hierarchy, the driller is sort of like a shift supervisor, in charge of a crew of men working on the rig.

His heritage was Scots-Irish, except he always called it “Scotch-Irish.” Not a big surprise with family names like Duncan, Archie and McMillan. Paw-Paw loved to tease and pick, and I loved to tag along with him. I used to go and spend a week during the summer with him and my grandmother, and I would ride with him to go places when he was home from the oil rig.

He died in January, 1969. He was 56. I was 12, and remember it like it was yesterday.

He had suffered a heart attack about three weeks earlier, and was in Baptist Hospital in Beaumont. These days, they would put in a stent or two, maybe do bypass surgery, and he’d be home in a week and back to work in a month. But in those days, they couldn’t do much for him.

I remember going up to his room to see him on a Sunday afternoon. He couldn’t talk – I guess he had on an oxygen mask or something, and he was very weak – but I remember him squeezing my hands and looking deep into my eyes. I can still see those eyes. The next day, he had another heart attack and died. Later, I would learn that his own father – James Duncan McMillan – had also died in his mid-50s, when Paw-Paw was only 4 years old.

I bring this up, because I had a birthday this week. I just turned 56.

Now, I’m not superstitious, nor am I especially morbid about these things, but that age has stuck with me all these years. And it brings up some questions to my mind. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. If I knew this was going to be MY last year to live, what would I change about my life? Ask yourself: if you knew you were going to die within the next 12 months, how would YOU live? What would you do? Where would you go? With whom would you spend some of that precious time?

There’s a hard truth in this. Unless Jesus comes first, one of these days each of us will die. It may be when we are 56, or 66, or even 106, but it will come. So cherish the moments. Love deeply. Laugh often. Treasure each day.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In other words, we need to live with eternity in mind. And that’s what’s on my mind as I turn 56.

Thanks, Paw-Paw.

No Matter Where It’s Going

I love trains.

I mean, I always have.  My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.”  I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains.  And I especially love riding on them.

Trains were a major part of my life growing up.  We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont.  It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans.  There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas.  There was also a small passenger station and freight dock.  The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions.  And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.

When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg.  It must have been around 1963.  (Yes, I know, I’m old.)  I remember the tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor.  I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level.  And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg.  He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again.  We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out.  There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, Whites Only.  But that’s a story for another day.

Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile.  I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you.  But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers.  Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by.  Sweet times.

So, fast forward to the present.  I was taking Amtrak to Beaumont, to spend some time with my dad.  I had taken the train before from San Antonio, through Houston, to Beaumont, but the scenery this time looked different.  None of the small towns that I remembered from the last time I took the train.  More undeveloped areas.  Definitely different.

Now, for the non-railfans out there, I should point out that outside of the Boston-New York-Washington, DC corridor, Amtrak does not own its own tracks – it uses tracks owned by the freight railroads.  For this particular trip, that means mostly Union Pacific, which long ago bought up Missouri Pacific, Southern Pacific, the Katy, and several other railroads.  So I asked the conductor, “Whose tracks are these?  Is this the old Missouri Pacific main?”  The conductor, who was all of maybe 30, gives me a totally bored look and says, “Beats me, man.  It’s all Union Pacific to me.”

So, I’m watching the countryside gliding by, and suddenly, there it is, rising out of the foggy mists of a cool East Texas morning.  Grayburg.  The old siding where pulpwood trucks used to unload.  The familiar unpaved road to my grandmother’s house.  I only had just enough time to take a quick, blurry picture with my cell phone camera.  And just like that, zip, zip, zip, we were through it and gone.

But it was enough.  I was overwhelmed by memories of playing with my brothers, as well as thoughts of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and especially my sweet mom, all gone.  It was sweet and wonderful and painful and made my heart ache with the love of it all.

People have often asked me why I love trains so much.  I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote on a hot summer day.  Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights.  A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days.  I love it all.

I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.