Adjustments

March 10, 2017 – Friday morning

As I write this, it’s been a little over two weeks since I’ve moved in to live with my dad as his caregiver. I knew this would be an adjustment in many ways, and certainly it has been. Some of those adjustments have been tougher than others.

I knew I was going to miss my family in Abilene, and I do. I miss our home, and especially my wife, Kathy, and her sweet smile and her gentle sense of humor. She is wonderfully attuned to hearing the Spirit of God, and I miss the blessings of just being around her. As many of you know, she also has an amazing singing voice, and I have always loved standing next to her as we worship, and hearing that beautiful voice offering up a sacrifice of praise in gorgeous harmony.

I miss my many wonderful friends. Many of them are from church and from our Bible class. Proverbs says as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another, and I am a better student of God’s Word because of the “sharpening” these friends have provided. It has been a privilege to study with them. Others have shared with us through life groups and other ways. Whether sharing from the bread of the Bible, or sharing Chinese food at Szechuan’s, the sweet friendships and fellowship have been a rich blessing.

As I said to some friends before I left Abilene, most blessings in this life are temporary, and when those blessings are gone, we can either be angry that we’ve lost them, or be thankful that we got to enjoy them for a season, and I choose to be thankful.

I don’t want to forget my friends from our model train club, and the fun we had running trains together and sharing that great hobby.

And that’s not all. Certainly, I miss the good friends and colleagues with whom I worked at CCC, and I miss the work of meeting neighbors and building a better neighborhood. Yesterday was the second Thursday of the month, which was the regular day for “neighbor lunch” potluck dinner, where I would prepare the main dish and the neighbors would bring the sides. I miss the good food, and the good conversation that we had together.

I miss my CCC co-workers, and the shared struggles that we had together. That’s what it means to be part of a team, so that “joys are magnified and disappointments lessened,” because we went through them together. And in shaping teenagers to become Young Leaders of Abilene, or in helping families move towards better financial stability, or just giving someone a ride to the store, they are still doing that work, and God knows, we need more good neighbors in this world.

So yes, there are people and things that I miss greatly about Abilene. But I am receiving many blessings as well.

I enjoy sharing time with my dad, and hearing stories about the interesting life he’s led, people he’s known, places he’s been. He has worked hard his whole life, and always put his family first. Imagine: all those years, I thought he LIKED the dark meat of the chicken! Turns out, no, he actually prefers the white meat, but he was letting his family have the first pick.

So now, if he needs a little help with the chores of everyday living, it’s my privilege to assist him with that. I figure he’s earned it.

Just the other day, he showed me a picture from his days in the army. He was about 23 or 24, a corporal in charge of a crew manning an anti-aircraft gun. The picture shows him, kneeling down, with the members of his crew all around him. They’re all smiling, and you can tell that these are young men in the prime of their lives, defending their country during the Korean War, but also ready to have a good time when they’re not on duty.

I’m learning other things too, and receiving blessings beyond measure. And I’m thinking that somehow, in some way, maybe this is what God has in mind for us. Not that we should all move in with our aging parents, necessarily, but that we should be more willing to care for each other, to give up some of our own conveniences and comforts when necessary, for the sake of helping someone else.

And just this morning, we got a phone call that my niece and her husband had just had their first baby, a little girl. Everybody is doing well, and the pride and love in my brother’s voice was special beyond words. It was a wonderful moment, being with my dad when he saw the first picture of his newest great-grandchild – this makes number eight. And thank You, Lord.

So there are compensations for the things I’m missing. Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

No matter how much we try and plan for the future, none of us can know the twists and turns of “what’s next.” The truth of this principle has recently been reinforced to me. I have resigned from CCC, effective by the end of February. How this came about is a bit of a long story, but I think it’s a good one, so please bear with me.

My 88-year-old dad has been battling a crippling neuro-muscular disease for about 10 years. (Some of you may recall that I wrote a post about him back in the fall of 2016.) This disease has left him unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, and essentially homebound. He lives in Orange County, Texas, between Orange and Beaumont, in the same house where I was raised, and on the same piece of land where he was born and raised. Recent events, including a visit last month to help care for him, have convinced my brothers and me that dad is simply no longer able to stay by himself.

My brothers and I have discussed this at length, and considered all the various options available – hiring an outside caregiver, relocating dad to live with one of us, moving him into a nursing home. For various reasons, none of these options can work for him, or for us. We have decided that the best course of action would be for me to move in with dad and serve as his full-time caregiver.

While I am looking forward to spending more time with my dad and serving him, I am overwhelmingly sad about leaving Abilene and the non-profit I work for, Connecting Caring Communities. In the nearly nine years since I joined CCC, I have been blessed to make some wonderful friends and see amazing things done, working with neighbors and others to better our community.

(I’m also going to really, REALLY miss our church, Beltway Park, and so many friends from our Sunday School class and our Bible Study life group. The folks in my Sunday class gave me a great send-off yesterday, with lots of prayers, hugs, tears, kind notes & cards, and even gifts of cash and more. Our Sunday night group had a farewell dinner for us last night. It was a very rich, full day of love and friendship, and one more thing I will miss about Abilene. But right now I’m talking about work…)

I have learned so much during my time with CCC – especially about what it really means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The opportunity to meet some great people, to get to know neighbors from different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, and to host them in our home – these have been priceless blessings that I will always cherish.

I think of friends I made who have passed away: people like sweet Sandy, a tattooed elderly lady that I met through Meals on Wheels. Sandy, you must have lived an interesting life in your younger days; I’m sorry I never got to hear the stories I’ll bet you could have told. People like David, confined to a wheelchair, yet always with a smile on his face. Rhonda; Jimmy; Paul; all of you blessed me with your friendship, and I thank you. I will continue to miss you, and remember you fondly.

I think of the kids who spent part of their afternoons with me and our volunteers at “Kids’ Club,” and the parents who trusted me to watch their little ones for a while. It was my honor, and my pleasure. We had a good time doing homework, drawing on the sidewalks, climbing trees, doing crafts, and more. And I remember the Bible stories we told – “they say stories like that make a boy grow bold, stories like that make a man walk straight.” The Fruit of the Spirit and the Armor of God, David, Deborah, Moses and Esther. Mary & Joseph, Peter and John and the boys, and best of all, Jesus, the manger, the parables, the miracles, and the cross. And the twelfth and final egg, which is, of course, empty.

I think of the meals, and all the laughs we had around the table and out in the yard. Easter egg hunts and Halloween carnivals. Banana boats and dirt cake, hot dogs and Frito pie. A dunking booth on a certain very cool October day, and kickball games. Swing sets and bluebonnets. The prayer walks and recruiting volunteers. Working with teens for the “Young Leaders of Abilene.” Finding unexpected skills, like the time I handed my neighbor Diego the spatula during a cookout, then couldn’t get it back, only to learn that he used to be a short-order cook! I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it.

And I think of so many friends who have supported, and continue to support, our work through your prayers, your gifts and your financial participation, a huge and heartfelt “thank you.” We literally could not do this without your gracious assistance and partnership.

To the colleagues I’m leaving behind, past and present: Please know that I’ve enjoyed every minute of working beside you. It has been a privilege to serve with you. I’m praying for your continued success.

Working for CCC has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I shall always cherish the opportunity to live out the call to love our neighbors, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to seek the shalom of our city. Thanks to everyone who participated in this ministry, and may the Lord continue to bless and guide all of you, as you continue to work on behalf of CCC, our neighbors, and our community.

“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.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he 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 and became part of the socialist movement, and 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.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

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.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

Hello, I Must Be Going

A little over two years ago, my family and I moved into a beautiful, spacious home on Abilene’s far north side, to continue doing the work of meeting neighbors, building relationships, and serving the community. It has been a very enjoyable time, we love this house, and we have made some wonderful friends among our neighbors in the North Park neighborhood.

npfh-sw-1And we’re leaving.

About a year ago, my colleagues and I at CCC began asking some very hard questions about ourselves and the work we are doing in Abilene neighborhoods; the result of those conversations was to decide that as an organization, we were not being as effective as we would like to be. The work of building relationships is great work, but relationships in and of themselves will not bring about the kind of community renewal that we all want to see. Creating the social capital of bringing neighbors together is great, but you have to then “invest” that social capital in ways that make sense.

npfh-se-2Part of the way CCC had been doing things was to have several community coordinators – that’s my “official” job title – and place each coordinator in a separate neighborhood. Some of those neighborhoods were small; some were enormous. Some coordinators enjoyed focusing on kids and families; some were more interested in working on “bigger picture” issues. All of us wanted to bring about the “safe, caring, whole community” our mission statement envisions – we just weren’t sure that the strategy we were following was going to get us there.

We talked with a lot of people. We read books from numerous experts in this field. We sought input and approval from our board. And at the end of that process, we decided that what was needed was for all the coordinators to live in the same neighborhood, so that we could more effectively work together – to share the load and to take advantage of our various gifts and talents, and also to support each other, so that one individual was not having to be responsible for an entire neighborhood by himself or herself.

From there, we naturally began to ask, “Which neighborhood?” And again, following a lot of discussion, we settled on College Heights as being the most logical choice. The irony, of course, is that College Heights is the neighborhood where my family and I lived for over six years, in the old Friendship House there, before we moved to North Park. For a lot of reasons, though, College Heights makes the most sense as the place to refocus our team efforts. We talked with our partners; we talked with our funders.

Then I had to confirm to my family that we were, indeed, going to have to leave this beautiful house.

There have been a lot of logistics in all this. Buy or rent? New or old? How large? Which section of the neighborhood? We searched for over eight months, until we finally found a small house in the southeastern part of College Heights that we think will work for us. It’s currently being re-habbed, and we should be able to start moving sometime by mid-October.

To be honest, we’re not sure what will be happening with the North Park Friendship House. It could become CCC’s administrative offices, and continue to serve as a venue for neighborhood events; there are other options as well. Certainly, we want to carry on the wonderful relationship we have had with Hardin-Simmons University, and CCC is definitely planning to have an ongoing presence in the North Park neighborhood.

This move will be an adjustment for our family, to be sure. Like many older homes, our new house has precious little storage space, so we’re having to downsize and get rid of a bunch of stuff. It’s a two bedroom home with a living room and dining room, but less than half of the square footage of our current home, and certainly without the large community room for hosting events. It will take some getting used to, but it will be fine, and I’m looking forward to renewing friendships with some of the neighbors in that immediate area, and to making new friends, too.

I’m especially looking forward to continuing to partner with my CCC colleagues, to loving neighbors in Jesus’ name, and to helping build a stronger, safer, better community by building relationships one neighbor, one home, one block at a time.

So, farewell, North Park. You have blessed us and welcomed us into your lives, and we’ve enjoyed being your neighbors for the last couple of years.  We look forward to continuing as friends. And hello again, College Heights. It’s good to be back.

Here we go.

 

 

 

Lessons from Dad

I hope you had a pleasant Labor Day holiday weekend, and that you were able to do something fun with family or friends. I spent the weekend with my dad.

Dad & me 9-3-16Harry Louis Garison, Sr., is a remarkable man. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” he was born at home on August 25, 1928. When he got married, his father gave him an acre of land across the road, where dad built a house for his new bride. He still lives in that house where we grew up. Other than the three years when he was in the army, he has lived on that property in Orange County, Texas, his entire life.

Almost six years ago, my mom passed away from a stroke, and it was a hard blow for him, but he was determined to stay by himself, and he has. Well, not quite by himself – he has a gentle giant of a dog, an old German Shepherd named “Chica,” who is his faithful companion. My dad is also blessed with some great neighbors and good friends who regularly check on him and sometimes even bring him food.

Dad had a long career as a mechanic and a business owner. When we were boys, my brothers and I took turns working for him, and watching him and the way he carried himself has gone a long way towards making me who I am today.

The most important thing I’ve learned from my dad is that Christianity is not something you just talk about; it’s how you live. Dad has lived his life in accordance with the scripture that says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).

Dependability, honesty, hard work, loyalty – these are the principles by which my dad has lived his life. It’s how he operated his business and how he raised his family. To this day, he is a role model for my brothers and me.

Something else I’ve learned from dad: patience. Whether it was fixing some stubborn problem on a car or dealing with a difficult customer, my dad always modeled patience for us, even though he would probably say he didn’t do a very good job at it.

In recent years, dad has shown great patience in another way. Dad has non-diabetic neuropathy, which has destroyed his balance and left him confined to a wheelchair. It has also turned his hands into claws, and left him unable to use his fingers. But he still lives by himself, dresses himself, and cooks his own food every day. He has gotten very creative in finding ways of doing things he used to do without thinking about it. He still gets them done; it just takes longer. But he is patient enough (and stubborn enough) to keep working on the chore in front of him, until he finishes it.

There’s a lot more I could say about my Dad, but one recent story reveals a lot about him. Dad enjoys ice cream as a treat, and he buys frozen goodies from the Schwan’s truck that comes to his house. Just the other day, he had bought a box of ice cream sandwiches, and decided he wanted one right then, so after the truck left, he opened the package and took one out, and was putting the box in the freezer above the refrigerator. As he was stretching up in his wheelchair, he slipped and fell, and spilled ice cream sandwiches everywhere. Just at that moment, his home health nurse arrived, and came into the kitchen to find him on the floor. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Never mind that,” he said. “Help me get this ice cream in the freezer before it melts!”

That’s my dad.

The National Game of Texas

In 1887, in the tiny North Texas town of Trappe Spring, two young boys had a problem. Twelve-year-old William Thomas and 14-year-old Walter Earl both really liked playing cards – not games of gambling, but trick-taking card games similar to Bridge, Spades, Whist, and the like. The problem was, both young men came from devout Baptist families, and playing cards was absolutely forbidden. What to do?

Playing dominoes was allowed in their homes, but the boys found regular dominoes to be, well, boring. So they set out to invent a new game, using the strategy and skill of their favorite card games, but utilizing dominoes instead of the sinful pasteboards. After a few months of trial and error, they had their game, which they taught to their families. Their families enjoyed this new game, and taught it to their neighbors. They liked it, too.

When their families moved to Fannin County, they took the game with them, and taught it to their new neighbors. It caught on there, too, and gradually spread across the whole state. And thus was born “The National Game of Texas” – 42.

domino-square_0Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Texans of all backgrounds and social levels would meet to play. In rural communities and big cities, neighbors would bring covered dishes to someone’s house on Saturday nights after work, and eat together. Then, after the dishes were done and while the kids played outside, the grown-ups would sit and sip their sweet iced tea (these are mostly Baptists, remember!), and play 42. The game was played in homes, at churches, on picnics, and around campfires.

When the Texas boys went off to World War II, they took the game with them. There are lots of stories about G.I.s teaching the game to their buddies from New York and California. But at its heart, it was – and is – a Texas game, officially recognized by the state legislature as the “Official Domino Game of Texas.”

And although some think of it as a game for older people, it’s actually making a comeback among younger players. In fact, every year in Halletsville, there is a state championship, to crown the best “42” player in the state.

Like many great games, 42 is easy to learn and hard to master. The game is played with four people – two teams of two people each. You draw seven dominoes, then you bid on how many “tricks” you can take for your team. There’s a total of 42 points for each round – hence, the name. Knowing how to bid well is the key to being a good player.

winning 42If you want to know more about the history and strategy of playing 42, you need to get a copy of Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas, by Dennis Roberson. There are also online versions of the game, where you can practice against computer-generated players.

The competition, skill and strategy of a well-played game is certainly enjoyable. But for many, the real pleasure of the game is the time spent with friends – the fun of getting together with neighbors to talk, to visit, and to share life together.

We played “regular” dominoes in my family when I was growing up, not 42, but a few years ago, I got to play a few hands when I was visiting a friend at her nursing home. Then last month, the teenagers of our “Young Leaders of Abilene” group were helping out at Cobb Park’s monthly game night, and there were some folks there playing 42. As I sat and watched, I remembered how much fun the game was. I began talking with some of my neighbors, and sure enough, discovered that several of them are devotees of the game.

So, coming up on Saturday, April 2, (4/2 – get it?), several neighbors and friends will get together here at the North Park Friendship House. We’ll set up tables, get out the dominoes, choose up teams, and play 42. At some point, we’ll stop long enough to eat, then we’ll play some more. Are you a 42 player, or do you know someone who is? Come join us.

William and Walter would be proud.

Slow Down

(Thanks to Keith Roberson, North Campus Pastor at Beltway Park, for kick-starting my thinking along these lines.)

It won’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone if I say, we’re busy. We’re all busy.

Duh.

And that busy-ness only gets worse during the holidays. Here it is, the first week of December, and my family already has somewhere to be, every night this week. And it’s going to continue like that for the whole month, right up until the 25th. Of course, by the time Christmas Day actually, finally, mercifully, gets here, we’re so exhausted that we won’t be able to appreciate it. So Christmas becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Stop this train. I want to get off.

Nobody WANTS to hate Christmas. The truth is, most people enjoy many of the things associated with the season, but we utterly despise – and absolutely reject – the crass merchandising of the holiday, the cynicism of too-slick marketing, the packaging of warm fuzzies as if they were so many beans for sale on a store shelf somewhere.

Slow down. Nobody said it had to be this way.

I’m not going to tell you that you have to stay home from the office Christmas party, or not to exchange gifts with cousin Freddie, or skip putting up the outdoor decorations. But I AM suggesting that we all stop and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And maybe that DOES mean, simplifying our schedules and cutting back on some things, in order to focus on better things.

Almost everyone likes SOMETHING about Christmas. The music. The food. Spending time with family or friends. So, how about we focus on doing the things we enjoy, and skip (or at least, minimize) the rest of it?

If it’s Christmas music you like, give yourself permission to spend more time listening to it. Do you like Christmas movies? Skip one of the endless parties, make some hot chocolate and popcorn, and stay in with “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or even, “A Christmas Story,” if that’s your thing. (Just don’t put your eye out!)

Do you like to cook or bake? Whip up a batch of your favorite holiday snack treat – chocolate chip cookies, peppermint bark, Chex mix, whatever – and enjoy. Share some with friends. And don’t forget to take some to your neighbors.

Do you have little ones, kids or grandkids, that you can spend some time with? Find a way to make some Christmas memories for them. Think back to your own childhood: what was most special to you? Many folks remember something fun and special that their family did. So now, it’s your turn to help your young ones have some special memories of their own. But it’s not about the stuff – it’s about the time.

I’m suggesting we skip maxxing out our credit cards and over-scheduling ourselves into a holiday frenzy, and instead, slow down, think about what this season is all about, and spend some quality time with the people who matter in our lives. Share a second cup of coffee with a companion. Reach out to a friend. Don’t just forward another mindless Facebook meme about “the reason for the season” – let the Spirit of the Christ-child living in and through you be evident to everyone.

We can start by spending a little time in the Christmas Story as found in Luke 2. Notice that after the shepherds come for their visit, verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Treasuring memories. Pondering them. Works for me.

Welcome Home

My wife and I have very different TV habits, but there is one show that we both like, and it’s on the HGTV channel: “Fixer-Upper”

In case you’re not familiar with it, “Fixer-Upper” features the husband and wife team of Chip & Joanna Gaines, of Waco, Texas. Chip is a contractor, and Joanna is a designer and owner of a local boutique. Together, they operate Magnolia Homes.

Chip-and-Joanna-Gaines-HGTV-Fixer-Upper-with-kidsEvery week, a client hires them to help find them a home, which they then remodel to suit the client’s needs and desires. As Chip says in the show’s opening montage, their goal is to take “the worst homes in the best neighborhoods,” and turn them into their client’s dream home. The show is unabashedly, unapologetically, Texan.

One of the things I really like is that a lot of the renovations feature old “Craftsman” style homes. With their client’s input and approval, they will strip the old home down to the bare studs and original floors, then restore it to its original appearance – only better. Each episode demonstrates this husband and wife duo working together. Chip and his crew do the heavy demo work, taking out walls, opening up rooms, enlarging doors, in accordance with the vision that Joanna and the clients have developed. Then she takes over, directing the construction team as they install and make the house into the home the client wants.

Along the way, there’s lots of playful interactions between these two, and their chemistry together is really attractive. Many times, Chip will bring their kids over while mom Joanna completes the staging for the client.

On the day of the “reveal,” they will bring the clients, with their eyes closed, to the front of the house, and have them open their eyes – only to see a giant photo of the UN-restored front of their house. (This photo is in two parts, with each half mounted on wheels.) They will talk about why they selected that property, and what was wrong with it. Then Joanna will ask, “Are you ready to see your fixer-upper?” At that point, she and Chip will each take hold of a different end of the photo on wheels, and open it up to show them their house.

(Of course, this being television, they have to cut to commercial right before that happens.)

But then, they will look at the new and improved curb view of their home, and talk about whatever landscaping and other external work was done. They walk to the front door, Joanna opens the door and leads them inside. As she does, she says, “Welcome home.”

Then they walk through the house together. Chip and Joanna will show them all the features of the new house and point out all the little touches that were just for them. They will express their good wishes for the new homeowners, and how much they hope they will be happy in their new home for many years to come.

It’s good television, and I like that they’re restoring old homes and repurposing old items that would otherwise end up on a junk pile somewhere, but that’s not the best part, at least in my head. I think the best part is knowing that, in a spiritual sense, Jesus is doing the same thing for me.

Even now, in my life, He is ripping out old ideas and enlarging my way of thinking. He’s removing old habits and refurbishing broken parts. It’s going to be like new, only better. As C.S. Lewis once described it,

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.

And one day, when my room in the Father’s mansion is completed, Jesus will open the door for me and bid me enter, and He will say those words we all want to hear.

Welcome home.

A Place Called Honey Island

(This is a rerun of an article I originally published in 2012. I’ve got a new blog that will post tomorrow.)

Labor Day always brings back memories of family reunions at a place called Honey Island.  How that came about is the story I want to tell you.

My grandmother, Mazura Linscomb Garison, died in July, 1964 – less than a month after this picture was made. (The date of August, 1964, was the processing date.  Mom was a little slow in getting to the drug store sometimes.)  This picture shows me with my brothers and many of my cousins.  I’m the shirtless one, second from the left.

Anyway, as I understand the story, after Grandma’s funeral, all of the cousins, family members, in-laws, out-laws, Garisons, Garrisons (we do have some 2 R cousins), Linscombs, Cottons, and others decided that it was a shame that we needed a funeral to have a family get-together.  So, a few weeks later, our tradition of a family reunion came about.

In the heart of East Texas, in the middle of an area known as “The Big Thicket,” you will find the towns of Saratoga and Kountze.  And back in the day, at least, there was a little place called Honey Island, where there was a large park with open air pavilions, picnic tables – and two large swimming pools, fed by artesian springs.

I remember the water had this vague, sulphur-y smell – it smelled like the crude oil that was just under the surface in that part of Texas in those days.  We didn’t mind the smell.  It was a great place to swim, to play, and to see (or meet!) kinfolks we hardly ever saw.

Near the swimming pool was an open-air pool hall that had a jukebox.  CCR’s “Green River” and The Hollies, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” seemed always to be playing.  (Saturday night I was downtown, workin’ for the FBI…)  Momma didn’t want us going near there, but you could hear the jukebox from the pool.  And I remember a sign in the pool house/concession stand that said, “We don’t swim in your toilet.  Please don’t pee in our pool.”

And the food that we shared at the potluck, of course, was great.  Lots of (homemade) fried chicken and potato salad, and plenty of other good things.  And watermelon.  It was a great time to be a kid.  And part of the family.  The tradition continued for many years.

Eventually, of course, we stopped going to Honey Island.  One by one, the older folks passed away.  The kids grew up, moved away, had kids and families of their own.  But I remember those good times of Labor Days past, and those cousins and family members I loved so much.  Each funeral makes thinking of heaven that much sweeter.

A few months after my mom passed, there was a family get-together, which I didn’t get to attend.  Maybe we’ll have another soon.  I hope so.

Meanwhile, here’s a shout-out to all those cousins and loved ones who remember with me our family reunions at Honey Island.  And to all of us, let me say, cherish your families.  And don’t wait for a funeral to see each other.

Happy Labor Day.

Remembering Ginny

Ginny KloogWhile others were enjoying a lingering Independence Day holiday on Sunday, I was thinking about Ginny. It would have been her 60th birthday.

Ginny and Mike were among the first friends my wife and I made after we moved to Brainerd, Minnesota, where I was a newly-installed pastor serving my first church. Later, we moved back to Texas, to Haskell, and about a year after that, they followed so Michael could go to work at the Paint Creek WTU power station.

Ginny was pretty and vivacious, and a smile that could absolutely light up a room. She had an amazing soprano voice and could play the guitar, and she and my wife would sing together for hours, their voices naturally harmonizing. They knew the entire John Denver catalog of songs, and covered lots of other artists as well – my personal favorite was always, “The Sweetest Gift,” as performed by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd they frequently sang together in church.

She had lots of other talents, as well. Ginny loved kids – ALL kids! Ethnicity, income, color, whatever, didn’t matter to her. For several years, she ran an in-home day care center, and helped raise a whole generation of kids in the Haskell area – our son Drew, included.

She loved Christmas, and enjoyed singing in community musicals. And she loved art – she taught art classes at the Paint Creek school, and left an indelible mark on dozens, if not hundreds, of students.

Over the years, our friendship grew, changed, matured. We had our kids, and she and Mike had theirs – first two daughters, then later, a son. She taught Sunday School at church, and also became the song leader, and I swear, I never grew tired of hearing her & Kathy sing together.

That all changed one year just before Christmas. Ginny had had a bad headache all that day, then that evening (at a Christmas party, of all things) she had a stroke – a bad one. She was just in her 40s. Ginny worked really hard, and managed to regain a lot of what she had lost. But then in 2005, she had another stroke, from which she could not recover. She passed away on December 16, 2005.

Why am I telling you all this? I don’t know. For one thing, I guess, just to share Ginny’s story: she was a remarkable woman, a dear friend, and I wish you could have known her. Beyond that, her story is a reminder that life is short, so cherish every moment, and make it count. Tell the people that you love how you feel. Smile. Sing. Laugh.

Ginny would tell you, that really IS “The Sweetest Gift.”