Diamonds & Dirt & Heading for Home

News item: The Major League Baseball 2021 season begins next week; Opening Day is set for Thursday, April 1. I’m ready. I love baseball.

In fact, in honor of Opening Day and with your kind permission, I’d like to repeat a column I wrote some time ago, about why I enjoy the game. Because, as many others have said before, there is wisdom we can learn from baseball that translates directly into a well-lived life.

For one thing, I love the more-realistic expectations of baseball, especially compared to other sports. The best hitter who ever lived (Ted Williams), in the best season he ever had (1941), had a batting average of .406. That means that six times out of ten when he came up to bat, he FAILED to hit the ball. Can you imagine a successful wide receiver who dropped six passes out of every ten thrown to him, or a basketball player who missed six out of every ten shots he took? Not likely. The truth is, many of us fail more often than we succeed. Success in life is measured, though, not by how many times we fail, but by how many times we get back up and keep trying.

Another thing about baseball – you have to focus on the situation at hand. You can only play one game at a time. Learn to stay in the moment, and don’t worry too much about the past or the future. When you make an error, shake it off, and be ready for the next ball hit to you.

I love the teamwork of a well-disciplined ball club. I mean, certainly I understand that teamwork is a part of football, basketball, etc. They are, after all, called TEAM sports. And, of course I realize that no running back is going to do very well without a good line blocking for him. But to me, there is unmatched beauty and elegance in watching an infield execute a beautiful – even graceful – 5-4-3 double play (the ball is hit to the third baseman, who throws it to second for one out, who then throws to first for another out). These guys have practiced so long and so effectively together, they make it look easy and effortless. And I assure you, it is not.

Even something seemingly simple like a fielder hitting the cutoff man, who fires to the catcher, to cut down a runner trying to score – such things take mind-numbing hours of work and skill to accomplish.

You have to trust your teammates. A pitcher has to trust the fielders behind him, to provide good defense. Fielders have to trust that pitchers will make quality pitches. So also in life. Surround yourself with Godly companions and support each other.

Some other principles from baseball that apply to life:

  • Realize that sometimes, the ball just takes a bad hop on you.
  • There’s a time for preparation, and a time for performance.
  • Even the best players will sometimes have an off day. And even the most average player will sometimes have the game of his life.
  • In a regular season, every team is going to win 54 games; every team is going to lose 54 games. It’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
  • Blown calls and bad trades are part of baseball. Deal with it.
  • Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  • Play with passion. Don’t be afraid to dive for the ball. It’s okay to get dirt on your uniform.
  • There’s a time to bunt, and a time to swing for the fences. Each is valuable in its place.
  • Make the most of the opportunities that you have. Don’t waste good chances; you don’t know how many you’ll get.
  • The bigger the situation, the more you need to relax. Too much tension is never good.
  • You can’t steal first.
  • You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.
  • Above all else – the main thing is always to get safely home.

Now – Play Ball!

Stepping Into the Past

My wife and I recently took advantage of having a little time off, to visit the National Ranching Heritage Center, on the campus of Texas Tech in Lubbock. The trip took us 140 miles from Haskell, and about that many years into the past.

The NRHC began about 55 years ago, as a way of preserving and celebrating Texas’ ranching history. Along the way, they have collected over 40 historic buildings and other artifacts, gathered together from the 6666, the Spur, the Pitchfork, XIT, King, and many other famous ranches and communities. Ranch homes, log cabins, bunkhouses, dugouts, barns, cattle pens, windmills – if it was found on an old ranch in the 19th and early 20th centuries – you name it, and the Heritage Center probably has at least one example of it. The collection also includes a ranch commissary, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a church building, and much, much more.

Our toured started at the beautiful, spacious headquarters building which contains several galleries, including a walk-through exhibition on the history of ranching and beef cattle; also on display is a collection of “Guns that Won the West,” beautiful Western sculptures, an authentic reproduction of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, “Burk” Burnett’s personal horse-drawn buggy, and more. From there, you step outside and onto the self-guided walking tour of ranching history.

The first building you come to is Los Corralitos, a replica of what may be the oldest standing structure in the state of Texas, dating from about 1780. Unlike just about everything else on the museum grounds, this building is a reproduction, because when historians were researching the old ranch fort, they discovered that the remains of five members of the land grant family may be buried beneath the original structure. It’s a fascinating building to examine, with its 33-inch thick walls of sandstone and mortar, no windows, and six gun ports for defending one’s family.

There are several dugout cabins, as well as log cabins, constructed before the railroads made lumber available. The interpretive signs along the way give you information about what you’re seeing. For example, you’ll learn about the Jowell House from Palo Pinto County (actually two buildings), two stories tall and made of cut stone – a replacement Mr. Jowell built to take the place of his original log cabin, which was burned in an Indian raid. And just in case you need a reminder of how hard life on the frontier was, also exhibited are the original headstones of five of the Jowell children, all of whom died between the ages of three and nine. (The original markers were replaced a few years ago.) Influenza, measles, snake bite, marauders, and accidents – it was not an easy place to grow up.

Of all the buildings that we saw, the one nearest Haskell County was an old mail cabin, made entirely of small, cut stones, dry-stacked to make a one-room structure, and originally from Knox County. Apparently, government riders from the postal system or the Army would use it as a stopover, to sort and drop off mail to and from various area ranches.

This cut-stone cabin, now at the NRHC, was originally located in Knox County. It was built about 1875 and was used to sort mail and messages for area ranches. (Photo courtesy, NRHC.)

It takes the average visitor about 60-90 minutes to see everything, but as the museum brochures explain, that depends on your level of interest. There is no admission charge, but donations are welcome.

So much of the center reminds you of how hard life was on the frontier; every gain was at the expense of a great deal of hard work, and every improvement took considerable creativity and problem-solving skills. For the most part, there were no outside resources or help available – if you needed something, you made it yourself or did without. If it broke, you fixed it. Weaknesses in one’s character simply were not tolerated.

As an example – before they could build above-ground cabins, many settlers would construct partially-buried dugouts in which to live. Of course, since they had dirt floors and walls, the people who lived there had to constantly be on the lookout for tarantulas and scorpions. And in the fall, when the first cold wind came and mama built a fire in fireplace, the rattlesnakes would come crawling, driven out by the heat.

It was a hard life, and the NRHC helps you appreciate a little more those who came before us. May we always be worthy of that heritage.

Lessons from St. Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

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Patrick was not Irish by birth; he was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and it is the Creator we must worship.

One of my favorite things about Saint Patrick is a prayer attributed to him, known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and also as “The Cry of the Deer.” It expresses a prayer that is very close to my heart, and says in part –

God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,

And another part says,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!

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.

Throughout 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.

If 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. I discovered how much I enjoyed the strategy of the game, along with enjoying the fellowship of visiting with friends, old and new. I’m still not very good at it, but I do like the game.

During the past year, we’ve all been forced to spend too much time apart from others, but as we go forward from here, maybe we need to re-discover the simple pleasures of good friends spending time together, enjoying conversation and a good game.

William and Walter would be proud

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.”

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

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

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

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

My grandmother, Sallie McMillan – “Sa-Sa”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Cooking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on a Fire

It’s been said that fire is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. The wildfires still burning in California and Colorado certainly prove that. But some of my fondest recollections of childhood involve being around a campfire with my dad and my brothers. It may have been a family camping or hunting trip, a Scouting event, or a church men’s retreat – but it seems like, we ALWAYS had a fire.

“The wonderful smell of burning piñon pine takes me back in my mind…”

Recently Kathy & I added a backyard fireplace, a chiminea, to our back porch, and I am really enjoying it. The wonderful smell of burning piñon pine takes me back in my mind, and the warmth certainly feels good on these cool evenings.

Fire has always held a fascination for people. When the ancient philosophers talked about the “Four Elements,” they were referring to Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. So what is it about fire that attracts so many of us, that makes us stop and stare into the flames?

In part, I think, it’s the attraction of home. Historically, anytime settlers would build a cabin or a cottage, there would always be a fireplace. It provided warmth for the home. It provided a means of cooking, and it provided light for those who lived there. Fire was pretty basic (and essential) to survival. And I think it was Louis L’Amour who once wrote, “No man is so poor that he can’t afford a fire.”

It was at one of the first Boy Scout camping trips I ever went on – I guess was in the fifth or sixth grade – that I remember building my own fire and cooking my own lunch over it. It seemed like quite an accomplishment to me at the time.

Besides cooking, fire was an essential component at blacksmith shops. Being able to heat metal, refine it, work and shape it into various tools and implements – these were needed skills on the frontier. They used to say that the two worst sins that a blacksmith could commit, were to not charge enough for his work, and to let his fire get cold.

But I think that one of the best things about fire is that it creates community. Many of us have had the experience of sitting around a campfire, with family or friends, and enjoying each other’s company. It’s a good time for telling stories (true or not!). More than that, it’s a good time to just be still – to sit and stare into the flames, to think and reflect, and just be.

When I think about good fires, it’s not surprising that God often uses fire as a symbol for Himself. It was in a fire – a “burning bush” – that God revealed Himself to Moses (Exodus 3:1-3). It was in fire, along with other signs, that God descended to the people on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18). It was with fire that God answered the prophet Elijah against the false prophets (1 Kings 18:38). When God poured out His Holy Spirit on the disciples at the birth of the church, one of the signs that was given was “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). And when the Apostle Paul was teaching the Thessalonian church about how to treat one another, he advised them, “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thess. 5:19).

In our crazy, hyper, noisy world, with social media, cell phones and the Internet all clamoring continuously for our attention, we can all benefit from just slowing down and enjoy the company of loved ones around a nice, warm fire – or just to be there, sit still, and be alone and quiet with God.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Today – Wednesday, May 16, 2018 – has been declared “National Classic Movie Day.” In that spirit, I want to tell you about my favorite movie, Casablanca, and why I enjoy it so much.

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had a torrid love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former love escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim his lost love?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), to Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and to brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve never seen the movie, be aware that the rest of this article will discuss plot points that will give away key aspects of the film.

First – here’s the original trailer for the film.

So, what’s the big deal? Why do I (and so many others) love this movie so much, and consider it among the best ever made? Well, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, here are three things that I appreciate.

The Movie’s Backstory

Casablanca started out as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison. In the process of turning that into a movie script, the writers couldn’t decide on what to do with the characters. Does Rick help Lazlo escape with his wife? Do he and Ilsa get back together, but send Lazlo on his way? Back and forth the arguments went. Just giving them the documents they needed to get away seems so, well, anti-climactic. And just handing someone a piece of paper is not exactly dazzling filmmaking.

The Epstein brothers had been assigned to handle the screenplay, but then they were called away to another project, so Howard Koch took over. The brothers would later return to help complete the work. All of this further added to the confusion about finding a good ending for the film. Somehow, though, it all works. In spite of the back-and-forth (or perhaps because of it), the movie just works.

The movie also benefitted from the war news. The Allies had invaded North Africa in late 1942, and President Roosevelt went to Casablanca in January, 1943, to meet with Winston Churchill, so the film took advantage of that free publicity. Its initial release was in New York in December, 1942, with the general release in early 1943.

Another factor that I and lots of other fans really appreciate is that many of the extras who were “customers” at Rick’s – including several with speaking parts – were actually themselves refugees from Europe. Some of them had even been interred at Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, before making their way to this country. Their accents – not to mention the passion they brought to this anti-Nazi film – added a layer of authenticity that simply could not be imitated.

Sparkling Dialogue

Another thing that I really appreciate is the crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. This film holds the distinction of being the greatest source of lines of any movie on AFI’s list of the Top 100 best movie quotes. From “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris,” from “Round up the usual suspects,” to “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” everyone has a favorite Casablanca quote.

Here’s an example from a conversation between Rick (Bogart) and Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault –

 Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.

Rick: It was a combination of all three.

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Sparkling!

Of course, there’s one line that’s often misquoted. No one in Casablanca ever, EVER, says, “Play it again, Sam.”

Rick’s Redemption

Of all the great things about this movie, my favorite is the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

Until now. In one transformational moment, he makes the decision to take a stand. In this scene, Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano, and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs, and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval – watch for his affirmative nod. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing together, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were Europeans; some had been imprisoned by the Nazis, others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, the outcome of the war was still very much up for grabs. But the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is very real.

I love this movie, and I appreciate this opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for reading.

Now, I think I’ll go make some popcorn, put my feet up, and one more time watch Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and the rest, in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. I’ll listen again as Sam sings, “As Time Goes By.” And I’ll rejoice as the good guys win again. Because we’ll always have Paris.

And once again, here’s looking at you, kid.