Missing Mom

Ten years ago today, I lost my mom. But in all the ways that count, she has never left me or our family.

It was a Friday that had started like any other day. Mom and Dad had gone to Beaumont from their home in Orangefield for an eye appointment, then they stopped at one of their favorite restaurants, IHOP, for lunch. As they were heading home, Mom said that she needed to use the bathroom, but she dropped her keys as she was trying to unlock the front door. She had already had the stroke that would claim her life.

Dad called the ambulance, and the EMTs promptly arrived. She ended up at Baptist Memorial in Beaumont. One by one, my brothers and I, along with other family, arrived as soon as we could get there – in my case, about 3:30 Saturday morning. The nurses were great, and the doctor was as gentle as he could be later as he explained that she had suffered a “terminal brain event.”

One of my brothers had been on a mission trip to Guatemala, helping drill a water well for a village that needed a new source of good water. Flights in and out of Central America have a somewhat loose connection to scheduled times, but he was able to get out on time – less than an hour before a Gulf hurricane came ashore and shut everything down for three days. He and his wife set a new record getting from Houston Intercontinental to the hospital in Beaumont.

An hour later, Mom was gone. Personally, I think she was just waiting on all her boys to get there before she left. One by one, we got to say our goodbyes, kiss her, hold her hand, and let her go. It was Saturday, September 25, 2010.

There were so many wonderful friends who supported us, at the hospital, with their cards and visits, and so much sharing of food, of laughs, of tears, of memories. My brothers and I got to preach her funeral, and that was a special time. The funeral procession was over a mile long going out to the cemetery. And even the funeral director felt the need to comment publicly at the graveside about what a remarkable woman she was.

This is one of my favorite snapshots of mom – it’s from Christmas about 2006, with a whole big, rowdy bunch of us crammed into their small kitchen, and her directing traffic and enjoying the chaos and noise of our family. And that’s not even all of us.

I still hear her voice in my head, and desperately wish we could have had more time together, but I’m thankful for many things. And so much of what she taught me, I still hold on to today.

  • I learned to love God’s Word from the countless Bible stories that she read to us every night.
  • I learned to be passionate about worship from hearing her strong, clear alto voice as she boldly sang out.
  • I learned to serve others by watching the way that she volunteered at church and in the community.
  • I learned to respect people who were different by the way she would never let us use hurtful words, even in jokes.
  • I learned to cherish the moments we have with family and friends, to laugh a lot, to forgive from the heart, and to say “I love you,” and always give “just one more hug.”

Because you never know when you won’t be able to anymore.

Speak, Lord

It’s 3:27 in the morning, and I can’t sleep.

I went to bed just after 10 PM, and fell right asleep, but then I woke up a little before 2, and haven’t been able to go back to sleep, so I got up. I’ve listened to some relaxing music. I’ve sipped a little Jameson. I’m still awake.

Yes, I have a lot on my mind, but it doesn’t feel like it’s any more than usual – I mean, I always have a lot on my mind. We all do.

My wife and I have lately talked several times about how noisy and chaotic life has become. As a household, as a society, we’re never quiet. It’s almost like we’re afraid to get quiet. When it’s busy, when it’s noisy, we can ignore God, and pretend everything’s okay. When it gets quiet, we can’t pretend any more.

It reminds me of the Old Testament story of Samuel, living at the Tabernacle. As a boy, he kept waking up when a voice called his name. He would run to the aged priest Eli, to see what he needed, but Eli hadn’t called him, and sent him back to bed. Finally, the old man realized what was happening and told Samuel that it was the Lord who was speaking to him, and the next time it happened, Samuel should say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

It’s quiet. It’s still. I’m listening.

Speak, Lord.

Diamonds and Dirt and Heading for Home

(I originally wrote this article in 2013, and thought was worth repeating. Hope you enjoy.)

I love baseball.

ballpark-fireworksI mean, I’ve always enjoyed the game, but in the last few years, I’ve really come to appreciate it on many different levels.  And I’ve come to understand what many others have tried to say before: that 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?  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.

Jesus said we should keep our priorities straight – seeking God’s Kingdom above all else – and not to worry too much about tomorrow.  He taught us to pray and ask for our daily bread.  Daily.

Along those same lines, if you have a really bad game – or for that matter, a really good one – always remember, there’s another game tomorrow.  So be ready for it.

I love the teamwork that a well-disciplined ball club shows.  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 6-4-3 double play (the ball goes from shortstop to second base to first).  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 coming home – 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 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.  (Quick: Name the first Texas Ranger player to hit for the cycle.)
  • 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.  You have to learn to 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 appropriate 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.

(Oh, and by the way – it was Oddibe McDowell, Ranger center fielder, playing at old Arlington Stadium on July 23, 1985, against the Indians.)

Reflections On A Birthday

From time to time, all of us have significant days – days when we realize that things have changed, that our lives are going to be different. Days when we pause to take stock of our lives, and perhaps think about some things that we are too busy to consider at other times. I’m talking about times such as, the birth of a baby. The death of a loved one. A wedding. A graduation. A child leaving home.

I had a birthday the other day.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, birthdays don’t necessarily rank up there with some of the other life events listed above, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about this one. Partly because of the age I have now reached: 58.

(Insert your favorite joke about getting old here. I’ll wait.)

It’s not that I’m feeling older, because I really don’t. But my grandpa Archie died of a heart attack when he was 56. His father had died at 56, and apparently, several other men in the McMillan family also died at about the same age, mostly from heart disease. I grew up very aware that men on that side of the family didn’t get out of their 50s.

So my first reflection after this birthday is, I’m thankful for good doctors and better medical care. I say this knowing that there are still far too many men in our culture who die of heart attacks in their 50s, or even younger. But I’m thankful for effective medicines to manage diabetes, and better understanding of diet, and all of those blessings. And I’ll tell you, it sometimes feels pretty sad to me to think about all that I still want to do with my life, and to think about my Pa-Pa dying at 56, and how young that seems now, and that I’ve already lived longer than he did, and how much he missed.

And not that this has anything to do with that, but here’s another thing: I’m blessed to be part of a church fellowship that is outward-focused. I have seen too many churches whose primary emphasis is nothing but member-care, and all the programs and activities are designed to pamper and tend to the folks on the inside. Beltway may not be perfect, but I appreciate their focus on missions and growing the Kingdom and reaching out to others. They prove it by the high percentage of their budget that they spend on missions, by their emphasis of projects in service to others – even by hanging on the walls the flags of the nations where we have partners at work.

At a time in my life where it’s easy to settle in, to pull back and become more inwardly-focused, I’m glad to be part of a group that is still going out.

By the same token, I’m honored to work for an organization that has a vision for community. I get to meet neighbors, to build relationships with them, and to help host events in our home that facilitate those things. Jesus said nothing was more important than loving God and loving neighbors, and I am so blessed to get to focus on those things 24/7.

One of the things I like best about my birthday is that it comes in my favorite month. I don’t love October only because of my birthday – that’s just one of many reasons. From cooler weather to changing leaves and so much more, autumn is my favorite time of year.

October means that the holidays are approaching. I’m not trying to rush the season – it still annoys me that Walmart is already playing “Jingle Bells” – but there’s no denying that Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming. Another year will soon be over. And in my head, somehow to me, at least, my birthday is kind of like the start of the holiday season.

The year is not over, but if there are things you need to get done before the end of the year, you need to be doing them. Which brings me to my final reflection –

I’m reminded of the need to make every day count. I’m 58. I hope to have a long time yet, but there is one undeniable fact: I’m one day closer to dying than I was yesterday. And so are you. Paul said we should “Redeem the time, for the days are evil.” In “Dead Poet’s Society,” Robin Williams reminded us of the old Roman adage – “Carpe Diem.” Seize the day. Make every moment count.

God bless us all for a good year.

Meet Archie McMillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Paw-Paw.