A Call to Community

According to Genesis 1, as God was creating the universe, He would pause from time to time, examine his work and pronounce that it was “good.” After God created our first parents, he surveyed them, along with everything else he had made and pronounced that it was all “very good.” Then we come to Genesis 2, where the story backs up just a bit and gives us more details about how God created the first humans. When he saw the man alone, it was the first time that God said something was “NOT good,” and so the Creator said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.”

It seems we are hard-wired for relationships. God created us that way, and He has called us to live in community.

That shouldn’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone. God himself exists within a perfect community, a union we understand as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but one, living in perfect community within themselves. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let US make humans in our image” – and that “us” is a reference, I believe, to that Divine Community, or if you prefer, to the Trinity. Later, when God gave Israel the “Shema” prayer – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4) – the word translated “one” is the Hebrew word, ekhad. It’s the same word that describes the “one flesh” of husband and wife. One as a union. One as a community.

When God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), it’s important to note that the first commandment begins with, “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt; you will have no other gods besides me.” Please notice that: the foundation of the entire law was the covenant relationship between God and his people.

God described himself to Moses by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He was defining who he was, at least in part, by the relationships he had. Throughout the days of the prophets, God was constantly calling his people and inviting them into a closer relationship. Sending Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in community with his people. That’s why one of the names by which Jesus is known is “Immanuel” – God with us.

According to Luke 4, when Jesus was beginning his public ministry, he read the scripture from Isaiah 61 about proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, setting captives free, and rebuilding the ancient ruins – all dealing with restoring broken relationships. In Mark 12, when he was asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The fact is, God has made us so that we need each other. In Romans 14:7, the Apostle Paul says, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” We are called to live in community. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that God has “committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.” And what is reconciliation, if not a fancy word for rebuilding relationships?

That community sometimes looks different. We are called the “bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal. 6:2), to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” (Rom. 12:15), and to “live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In Revelation 21:2, heaven is described as “The New Jerusalem.” A city. Not a suburb. Not a farm. Not a solitary cabin by a lake somewhere. A city. And city implies neighbors close by, and relationships all around us.

Genuine community is risky. Relationships take a lot of work and can sometimes be messy. But God has reached out to us, and desires to be in relationship with us, and that is precisely the way we are called to reach out to one another.

Life in the Slow Lane

I recently made a trip to East Texas and a good part of that time was spent driving on the freeway. At one point while I was on I-20, I came up behind some slow-moving traffic. I checked both mirrors and looked over my left shoulder. There was no one coming, so I pulled into the left lane and began to pass an 18-wheeler.

Suddenly my rear-view mirror was filled with the reflection of the massive grill of a large pickup – I mean, this guy was RIGHT ON my bumper. I was already going a few miles an hour over the speed limit to get around the truck that was now beside me, but I sped up as much as my little car could. I finished passing the truck and pulled back into the right lane, and the guy in the pickup roared past me, leading about three or four more cars behind him. I was going well over the speed limit by this point, and they were leaving me behind like I was standing still.

I certainly realize that there are emergencies in life, and there are times when speed is necessary, for a variety of reasons. And I’m aware that no one ever had a hit song, “Life in the Slow Lane.” Still, it seems to me that many of us would do well to take a breath and slow down a little bit from time to time.

I was in the ministry for a long time; I have also been a teacher and a neighborhood coordinator for a faith-based non-profit organization. I have done news and sports for radio and print, and if there’s one thing all those jobs have in common, it is that they all involve talking to folks and hearing their stories – building and developing relationships with other people. And the thing about relationships is, they take time. There is no substitute for this. It takes time to get to know someone, and to share stories. It takes time to sip a cup of coffee and look at pictures of family, or to share a glass of iced tea and talk baseball. Friendships and good relationships with neighbors and others develop slowly, gradually, over a long time, and they can’t be rushed. But they don’t happen by accident. Good relationships occur when someone is intentional about making them happen.

We understand this principle applies in many areas of life. When you plant a garden, you invest time and effort, and then (and only then) can you harvest your crop. When you cook a meal, it takes time to let flavor develop. But many of us have lost our understanding of this.

In a society where microwave popcorn takes too long, we’ve lost our appreciation for slowness. We have the world literally in the palm of our hands, and we can just Google whatever we want to know, for instant solutions. In our rush to get to work, to raise our kids, to juggle everything we have to do, we miss out on the joys of slowing down and savoring moments. Even in our leisure, we rush to get somewhere, so we can take it easy, forgetting that life is a journey, not a destination. So not only are we forgetting to “stop and smell the roses” – we’re not even noticing that there is a rosebush.

The good news is, things don’t have to stay that way. Summer is a great time to practice slowing down just a little. Invite a neighbor over to sit on your porch or your patio and get to know one another over something cold and wet. Fire up the grill and practice your outdoor cooking skills for your family and friends – you’ll discover it’s time well spent, and you may also discover that conversations are more enjoyable over a charcoal fire.

Or just slow down and take a moment for yourself and find some peace in the solitude.

It’s very common at graduations or weddings for parents to think about the baby that they brought home from hospital, seemingly only yesterday, but now that baby is grown up and moving out. The parents wonder, where did the time go? But by then, it’s too late to savor those moments. All you can do is cherish the moments to come.

It may take a little getting used to, and you can’t do it all the time, but there’s a lot to be said for occasionally pulling over and enjoying life in the slow lane.

“God Helps”

I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

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.”

A Little Kindness

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my favorite singer was Glen Campbell, and among the many other records of his that I had was “Try a Little Kindness” –

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he’s sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say, you’re going the wrong way

You got to try a little kindness
Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
Then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Don’t walk around the down and out
Lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show every day
Will help someone along their way

It’s a message I’ve been thinking about lately.

Item: An elderly diner in a “Waffle House” in La Marque, Texas, recovering from surgery, asks his waitress to cut up the slice of ham he’s having at breakfast. The busy 18-year-old pauses from her duties to help the man; another customer sees this and snaps a quick picture, which goes viral and causes the Internet to lose its mind. City officials are so impressed they honor the young woman with an official day, and Texas Southern University gives her a scholarship. (Photo by Laura Wolfe)

Item: The Marriott Hotel chain late last year began running a series of TV ads based on the theme of “The Golden Rule” – they even have their own hashtag, #GoldenRule. Part of the commercial includes a poem with the line, “What if mankind were made up of kind women and kind men?” The ads show Marriott employees – and others – performing simple acts of kindness to help others.

I realize that expressions of kindness towards others have often been in short supply, but it seems that lately such acts of kindness are even more rare than ever, and it makes me sad for our society. When did simply being nice to another person become so rare and remarkable that it makes the national news?

This may come as a shock to some of my younger readers, but there was a time in this country when politics “ended at the shore,” when political parties would not criticize a president (even from the other party) about the way he handled foreign policy; a time when we could disagree about political issues without assuming the other side was evil and out to destroy the country; and a time when we could discuss politics without the conversation degenerating into shouting match on the level of, “You’re stupid!” “No, you’re stupid!”

It seems to me that Jesus went out of his way to tell us that we should be kind to others, and not merely to those we already know or love, and especially not only to those who are able to pay us back. He told us specifically to dinner those who COULDN’T pay us back. He calls us to set an example of kindness and grace to everyone.

He’s not the only one. The prophet Micah told us to “practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8). The Apostle Paul lists “kindness” along with the other fruit of God’s Spirit. And that list is not a buffet – we don’t get to pick & choose which ones we want. If God’s Spirit is alive and active inside of us, He will be producing all of those qualities in us.

The problem with kindness is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s more concerned with serving others than in tooting its own horn. And in our self-promoting, selfie-obsessed culture, most of us simply don’t think of how to serve others.

Caring about others – putting the needs of others first – is a learned behavior, and contrary to human nature. It’s an act of discipleship that follows in the self-sacrificing steps of our Lord. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare.

Jesus is still looking for disciples who will walk as He walked, and live as He lived. That includes showing kindness to all. Especially those who don’t deserve it.

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.

A Small Group of Citizens

This will come as no surprise to regular readers of these ramblings, but for as long as I can remember, I have loved trains. I enjoy watching them, riding on them, and reading about them. I also enjoy building and operating miniature trains through the hobby of model railroading. And so I am a member of a model train club here in Abilene.

It’s a good club, and we have about 30 members. Some of us are skilled at building and maintaining well-running train cars and locomotives. Others are good at scenery – fashioning mountains and lakes or modeling city streets and industries that our little trains can serve. Some are good at carpentry, others understand electronics, and still others enjoy researching a particular railroad, so that they can duplicate its practices in miniature.

Put all these various skills and interests together with members who are willing to share what they know, and it makes our club really special. No matter what aspect of the hobby I’m working on, there is someone in our club who is good at it, and who is willing to help me with my project.

It is this willingness to share what you know and help others that elevates our club into a community. In fact, many organizations thrive on this same sort of camaraderie – mutual respect for others, sharing of valuable skills, the willingness to help, and the humility to ask for assistance when needed. Ideally, we should find the same principles at work closer to home, even in our own neighborhoods.

Last week, CCC sponsored a dinner in the College Heights neighborhood, with more than two dozen neighbors coming together. We ate and got to know each other a little better. We talked about our dreams for the neighborhood and how each of us can contribute to those dreams. Neighbors were asked to write down one thing they were good at. The answers were surprising – and encouraging.

Just within that small group of neighbors, we found people who know how to restore old furniture, and others who can speak Chinese. Some said they were good at providing child care, others understand how to use social media and technology, and others enjoy baking. We have some who sew and some who sing. And we won’t go hungry – one neighbor said she can cook Spanish rice, and another offered to make Maryland Crab Soup!

CCC believes strongly in the principles of Asset Based Community Development. In other words, instead of focusing all our attention on the problems we are facing, let’s focus on the assets we have to make our neighborhoods better. And without fail, our strongest assets are our neighbors themselves.

Now that we have identified these strengths, we will be looking for ways that these neighbors can use their various skills and interests to serve the entire neighborhood. We believe that doing this will inspire others to step up and do the same, and in the process, our neighborhoods will be improved for everyone.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It’s true for model train clubs. It’s also true for neighborhoods.

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.