Well; we’re back home now (with the exception of Fitz, who had to fly from Guayaquil through Quito to get to a business meeting in England, but he will be home tomorrow), we have begun the process of recovering from a long, hard week, laundry should be clean by now, and we have enjoyed a couple of non-submarine showers.
For the uninitiated, a “submarine shower” is when you get in the shower, get wet, and turn the water off. Soap up, turn the water on and rinse off. Repeat if needed (trust me, in Ecuador, we needed it!)
We’ve had something other than stale bread and peanut butter, along with sliced fruit, for breakfast. And that night’s sleep in our own bed . . .
But for we who were in Ecuador as a part of the mission trip this year, many images remain, and will so, for a long time.
The last day we went out to build, we were just down the street from one another. Gato’s back was still bugging him, so Pepe was back with us again. Team Gato built for Angela, a 39-year old single Mom, her 22 year-old daughter Sara (and her baby), and Angela’s two other children, Matthias (4) and Rumina (2). They were living in an 8-year old Hogar de Cristo home that had not been cared for, and was in great disrepair. Angela with stained glass window The children lived in the space beneath the home—mattresses on the ground. Their new home went in, about six inches separating it from the old home. Fortunately, we did not have to worry about setbacks or zoning variances. Digging through the drain field of their latrine to put two of the posts in the ground, however, was a different story. (The week’s best quote, thanks to Eric Edee, “Don’t eat the dirt,” was oft used.)
Team Ivan built for Maritza (49) and her children Kevin (7) and Christo (17). Maritza works about four days a week as a maid. Christo looks so small for a 17-year old due to malnutrition. But to show what character this young man has, Scott MacKenzie gave him a Powerbar, and he went down the street where some little girls were, and carefully divided it so that they all shared it—he did not eat it all himself.
Maritza family with Team

Showered and well-fed, we packed up and loaded up, and headed for the airport. The trip home was uneventful (if only the trip down had been so!), just mostly sleepless, so we all arrived home pretty tired. But we are home, in spacious, clean, air-conditioned homes, where we have more food than we need, and most anything we want, we can get without trouble. We have great transportation, well-stocked stores, and amazing support systems. All that is more than can be said for the families for whom we built, and there are thousands more—THOUSANDS—that need help.
We did not get to meet with the leadership of Hogar de Cristo this year; we do not know what happened, but the meeting simply did not take place. We heard that the Vice Minister of Housing for Ecuador met with them right before our arrival, and was allowing Hogar to continue their ministry of providing homes for the poorest of the poor, recognizing that Hogar is meeting a need that the government is not able to meet. So keep them in your prayers!
Sitting in the airport Tuesday night waiting to board the plane, Tim Adams commented well: “There were more than nine families whose lives were changed this week.” I looked at him, and he looked around at the group of guys who had just spent a week of their lives and cherished vacation on the trip. Well said. All of us who were there have had our lives changed, as well. May God continue to work in our lives!

Most of us live in a world in which a nice, sunny day, is a good thing. But when you are two degrees south of the equator, and you are working outside in the heat (and the A/C in the van you’re riding in has died), a sunny day is not a good thing.
Despite our best prayers for cloud cover, and a weather forecast for a pretty good chance of rain, we had a very sunny day today. Did I say very? I meant VERY sunny day. We also switched venues, from building homes in the area around the city of Daule (about 45 minutes north of Guayaquil), back to the community of Mt Sinai, an area that the city of Guayaquil annexed a few years ago, and which is rather close to the offices and compound of Hogar de Cristo, our ministry partner. We drove to HdC and met our maestros, with an added surprise of an old friend and maestro Pepe; he was coming along to help out team Gato, as Gato is still hurting from the back he hurt on Saturday—but not enough to hold him back from being with us.
One treat we enjoyed while we were at the Hogar compound was their flavored soy milk. Several years ago, Hogar started a side business making soy milk, after some visiting nurses from Brigham Young University found alarming rates of anemia in schoolchildren. It turns out that many children only eat when they are at school, and when the kids come to school on Monday mornings, they are famished and fainting. By adding soy milk to the school offering, not only are children getting added nutrition, they are also finding a way to decrease the anemia that is so rampant. We all grabbed a bottle and guzzled it down (we are getting virtually no protein at breakfast, and desperately need it—this helped, just a little.)
Then we headed to the build sites, dropping Team Ivan first, to build for an incredibly grateful and affectionate family (most of the guys got “double-cheek-kisses” from everyone in the family when the build was finished. Maria a single mom, has three children (18, 12, and 11), and helps to care for her 76 year old mother, with some help from her brothers (they are all in this picture). They survive—barely—on the $50 a month stipend from the government, and the occasional $15 that her son can bring in from sporadic work. Maria del Rose family & home
It took about another 45 minutes to get Team Gato to their site, after several twisty turny roads, washouts, and virtual rivers deterred the truck. Here they built for Julia, another single mom and her for children (15, 14, 10, and 4), but Julia has a bit better chance of “making it,” as her father, Rodolfo, is in the picture, and when he can find work as a plumber, can bring in up to $300 a month. When that does not happen, they “survive” on the $50 a month from the government. Julia and her family
Hard to believe, but we will head out tomorrow to build two more homes for two more families, then we will pack up and catch flights that will bring us back home. We ended this evening with a long-anticipated dinner at the Steak House, where we dined and laughed, and celebrated. Five men were inducted into the “Order of the Clavo Pequeno,” (the Little Nail—these were the Rookies on the trip); five others, who have been before, were inducted into the “Order of the Clavo Grande” (Big Nail); and Chris Southerland and Bill Schaeffer were inducted into the newly formed (as all these are) “Order of the Clavo Grande de Oro” (Big Gold Nail)—as they have participated in so many trips, blessing so many families. Boli Alfaro was presented an award with a Gold Nail, for Exemplary Service, for his vision, prayers, tireless work, and passion for the poor of this country.
The real end of the evening came when we returned to Schoenstaat Retreat Center, and celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, remembering the ultimate sacrifice made for us all.
“One day more,” as the song From Les Miserables goes—but two more homes to build. Keep us in your prayers as we seek to serve, in Jesus’ name!

Some Days . . .

June 8, 2014

Some days just don’t turn out the way you hope they will. But then again, maybe they do.

Our day began today as it did yesterday, with a simple breakfast, then piling into the van for the 45 +/- drive to the town of Daule, where we have been working this week. While yesterday we were working next door to one another, today turned out differently. We arrived at a build site, where one of the men we work with, Gato, waved “his team” over. We piled out of the van, as the other team (Ivan’s team) headed somewhere else. We’d enjoyed being together yesterday, and separation today was a disappointment.
Team Ivan built in an incredibly tight spot, but as the family they were building for—really only a couple, Guillermo (80) and Maria Teresa (78) are old enough, their build was only about three feet off the ground. The site was so tight, sandwiched between walls, and so gravelly and rocky, however, the augers were unusable. But this team prevailed for this couple who survive—if you can call it that, with no income, and only one meal a day, either provided by or made and delivered by their daughter who lives nearby. No job, Guillermo is unable to work (at 80, one would think SHOULD he?!), survive is the best they can do.
Team Gato had a seemingly nicer build site, next to a pond and marsh, but the site was terribly rock-filled, making sinking the nine posts that must go into the ground to support every home very difficult. Matters were made worse, when Gato turned funny to grab a piece of lumber, and blew out his back. The team was sidelined for the better part of an hour until he was able to operate again, and it took some time before he was moving with any ease. Clemente (75) and Anna (38, believe it or not!), similar to the other couple, have no work, but they have a $50 government stipend they receive every month, and have a sister-in-law nearby who looks in on them.Guillermo and Maria family
The team had to leave the site unfinished (but with Gato and Ivan and two Hogar de Cristo interns there) putting finishing touches on the stairs, as the delay was allowing dusk to move in, and we have been warned by Anna that there was a dengue fever risk from mosquitos in the pond. We parted, with stern words to Gato to rest tomorrow so he can join us again on Monday.
Chuck with Anna & Clemente  family
We wrapped the night up with a trip to Sports Planet, a restaurant we found about four years ago that we frequent every year. But even that experience, as similar as it is to one we would have in the States, is in sharp contrast to the experiences we have had building the last two days. We have been hungry, but we get more than one meal a day, and often we leave food on our plates, when others wish for another spoonful (or more). We have worked to the point of exhaustion, but we rest behind solid, secure walls, in the comfort of air conditioning. We shower daily, while those we build for may have a sponge bath now and then.
We debriefed last night, and talked some about the call of Abraham (Genesis 12.1-9), and were reminded that we are blessed—not by God so we can feel secure and comfortable, but we are blessed to be a blessing. We hope to be able to do that for the families we build for this week.
Tomorrow will be a day off to let our bodies recover to be ready for two more days of building. We’ll play tourist, and take it easy, but only so others can be further blessed.

There is an African proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child” (sorry, but Hillary Clinton did not coin it, nor her ghostwriter; they merely capitalized on it.) Today, the men on our mission trip proved that it takes a team to build a community.
We returned today to the exact same build site where we were yesterday. Team Gato (Steve Ike, Ed Easterlin, Will Thomason, Doug Grady and Fitz Wickham—oh, yeah, and me) built for a small family, Katarina and Hamilton, and their three children (6, 3, and 2.) Katarina is actually the older daughter of Vincento, for whom we built yesterday. Here is a picture of the structure where they have been living.Katarina's home

Hamilton works as a furniture refinisher, but only when he can find work, which is not that often. Katarina told us that she does not know how much money he makes, or what they have, she merely asks him for money to buy food. When they have no money, they eat one of the chickens they own. Let’s hope the chickens keep replicating—but even more, that their income stream increases. Their home is literally right behind Vincento’s home, and we saw him a good bit today as we built.
Team Ivan (Chris Southerland, Bill Schaeffer, Jamie Bardin, Scott MacKenzie, Eric Edee, and Tim Adams) built for Norma Moran, a 70-year old woman, her son Danny (whom we met yesterday, and who is missing his left arm), and Danny’s daughter (I think) Iliana, a pretty 13-year old girl. This home is right next to Hamilton and Katarina’s home, so the teams worked next to one another all day, teasing and goading one another as the day went on. Norma told us that the only income they have comes from Danny’s sporadic work as a “recycler;” in Ecuador this means that he prowls the streets and collects trash that can be recycled, taking it to a recycling center, and on a good day he makes about $2.00 a day. And there are not many good days.
One of the humbling realities comes at the end of the builds, when we have finished, and we “present” the homes to the families. We give them a small replica of the stained glass Ascension Window at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, and remind them that the home is a gift from God, not from us. We thank them for the privilege of serving in the name of Jesus, and along with the home, give them a food basket that provides them with many, many meals. It is fascinating to watch these families, whose faces express not only the joy of having a home, but the humble acceptance of the home and a chance for a better life. Many times, the men (when they are a part of the family—often we build for single moms) cry, a remarkable reality in this culture.

Presentation to Norma and Danny

Presentation to Katarina and Hamilton
Then the toys and gift come out for the children, and joy starts all over again! Tonight we will all sleep well, the guys who missed out on building yesterday got their chance today—we’re all tired, but humbled, and grateful for the chance to serve these people, in Jesus’ name.
And we’ll be back at it tomorrow!
Here is the “village we built today: what you can’t see is Vincento’s home.
The village we built

Wednesday evening, as Boli Alfaro, Chris Southerland (and our driver Samuel) were eating dinner, I received a text that let me know that the team of men–ten guys–headed to Ecuador to join us for our build trip–were delayed in Miami. Long story short, after several delays, they were told to disembark the aircraft, and that they would be spending the night in Miami. There was a mechanical problem with the aircraft (which was never explained), and their departure was moved from 6:55, to 7:30. To 8:00. Then 8:20, then 8:00 Thursday morning.

Thanks to modern communication, we were talking with them, texting, and tracking updates on an app. So the question became what to do, given the expectation that the earliest they would arrive and be ready to head out to work was 12:30/1:00.

Chris and I decided to head out as early as possible, meet our maestros (master carpenters) Ivan and Gatos, whom we have worked with for seven years, and see what we could get done. We left Schoenstaat around 8:00 AM, about the time the team left Miami. Delivered to the build site in Daule, a city some distance from Guayaquil, we met Gato and Ivan, and started work around 9:15. Here is the “before” picture:

Before

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We built for Vincento, an older gentlemen who was with us much of the day. He is 75, and has three children–11, 13, and 15, and his wife has left him, because she was younger and she did not like being with an old man. He works when he can, and makes do with that and government handouts.

Geez. Imagine being 75, and having three (almost) teenagers to raise on your own. The good news is that he has an older daughter who lives next to him, who we will build for tomorrow. She can help him. Hopefully more about that situation tomorrow.  Hut Vincent is a good man, and a faithful Christian, very humble and appreciative of what we have done for him. Here is the “after” picture, Chris and Chuck with Vincent, holding the replica of the stained glass Ascension Window from Peachtree Presbyterian Church, which we give each homeowner. Happy Vincento

It was a hot day, with the sun blazing intermittently, and Chris and I, along with Ivan and Gato, worked nonstop-without a break. Guzzling water and Gatorade (we call it GATO-rade), we finished the home between 2:00 and 2:30. In the meantime, the team had landed, processed through Passport and Customs, dropped bags at Schoenstaat and grabbed a quick lunch there, before heading out to Daule-just in time to find us enjoying an almost-cool Pilsner, relaxing after a long hard day.

But a good day. It was not what we planned, as we’d expected to have the entire team to help with the build, but as Steinbeck said, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” Lord willing, we’ll be back on track tomorrow, building two homes.

Boots on the Ground

June 4, 2014

Today is Wednesday, June 4; as I type, there are eleven men headed south to Guayaquil, Ecuador, who by the time Wednesday turns into Thursday, will all be settled in their beds in Guayaquil, anticipating the first day of our building with Hogar de Cristo this year, This is the seventh year that IRONMEN will partner with this ministry, building simple bamboo homes for some of the poorest of the poor in this country, maybe even this world.

I arrived here last night with Boli Aviles-Alfaro, a former native of this town, whose great-grandfather was once the President of this grand country. Boli and I have been meeting todayImage to make sure all the kinks are worked out for our endeavors, and were comforted to learn from our friend Patty that our two trusted “maestros” Ivan and Gatos will be able to work with us again this year. We will build one home tomorrow, then sometime before Friday’s breakfast, we’ll be divided into two teams and build two homes on Friday, Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday (before catching a red-eye back home Tuesday night.)

We have eyeballed the gas powered augers we will use on each build, assessed the tools we needed, bought tools, copious amounts of water and Gatorade (pronounced GATO-rade for those who work with Gato!) Now it’s time for the men to arrive so we can get to work.

Boli and I did get a chance to have a traditional breakfast this morning at Senora Tere, a long-time Guayaquil eatery, started by and still run by an old family friend of Boli’s. We did not see her today, but did get a visit with Boli’s brother Chom, who lives here and is a great supporter of our work.

Image

Keep us in your prayers–the work will be hard, the weather hot (we’re 2 degrees south of the Equator), but the families deserving and grateful for our contributions. Boli has been fighting a wicked case of sciatica, but by the grace of God it is getting better every day, and he is here, “large and in charge!”

I hope to post updates each evening after our work is done, adding photos of the families we build for. Stay tuned!

Rethinking Greatness

May 14, 2014

“The greatness of a man is seen in the way he treats people he does not need.”

 

I was walking down the hallway of the church with John Croyle, who has to be one of the greatest men I have had the privilege to meet and be in the presence of. John played defensive end at Alabama under the legendary coach Bear Bryant, was an All-American, but after a summer of working at a camp for youths in Mississippi, discovered what he was convinced was his purpose in life—helping the children that no one else wants.

Over the last 40+ years, John and his wife Tee, and now their children (you may recall their son Brody who has his own pretty good football career at Bama and then in the pros) have become the guardians of thousands of children. First at Big Oak Ranch for boys, and now with a second one for girls, and their own Christian school, they have literally shaped the lives of these children.

John had spoken at our annual IRONMEN Big Breakfast, where he challenged the men there to be men, and to raise their sons and daughters to be responsible and contributing people. It was a challenge that we all (especially the teenagers in attendance) needed to hear in this age of entitlement.

As I listened to John speak that morning, and reflected on the dinner I’d had with him and a couple of other guys the night before, I found myself thinking that if I have one tenth the impact over the course of my life that I believe John has had, I can die thinking that I have lived a very effective life.

The breakfast was over, John had signed books (he has several out, and all are well worth reading), and I was navigating him through the labyrinthine hallways of our church to find his car.

As we were walking along, one of our newer sextons, an immigrant from Haiti was walking towards us, and I simply said, “Morning, Junior.” He responded (that is his name, for the record), and John and I continued. That’s when John looked at me and said, “The greatness of a man is seen in the way he treats people he does not need.”

I was speechless. I felt that I’d just been paid a compliment (I really believe that is what John was doing), but to receive praise from someone as great as this man made me squirm.

I reflected on this some more, and realized that John was simply affirming what my general modus operandi is. I learned a long time ago that simply acknowledging someone else is a gift to that person, and one never knows how far that impact may go. Now, it’s not always easy, especially for a card carrying introvert like me (trust me; I function outside my comfort zone about 80% of the time), but I’ve learned that simply making eye contact and a short “Mornin’” can lift the day of someone who is feeling down and unloved.

So later today, and/or tomorrow, look someone you don’t know in the eye, and greet them. Practice that until it becomes second nature. You’ll learn that the people you don’t need, need you. And you will be a gracious person of greatness. You may get to where you are going thirty seconds later—but ultimately, when you get to where you are going in the eternal sense, you will hear that longed for “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Master!”

 

I just counted up, and to date, after 30+ years of ministry in four cities, I have officiated at 343 wedding ceremonies. That’s a lot.

I have thoroughly enjoyed them all, and have more than a handful of stories to tell from them. One of these days I’m going to get all these (and funeral stories, as well as baptisms, routine Sundays, and all other kinds of experiences) written up, and use the title of this post as the title of a book. Here’s a sample of what can happen when you thought it was going to be an ordinary, routine, kind of service.

I was getting ready for the wedding ceremony on Saturday of a guy who was (is) a member of our church, who was marrying a lovely young woman who was not a member of the church. That is neither here nor there, but the fact that she was from Romania is a pertinent fact.

No, this was NOT a mail-order-bride kind of deal. She had won a Fulbright Scholarship and come to Georgia State to work on a Masters degree. along the way, she landed a job at the Centers for Disease Control here in Atlanta. Somehow she met this guy, they fell in love, and were getting married. We’d met for four premarital counseling sessions, planned the ceremony, and talked everything through. Her parents and siblings were coming from Romania for the wedding, and we had talked about her parents’ grasp of English, and what I needed to do in the ceremony to make it work well for them. They understood much more than they spoke, but we all felt comfortable with the way things were looking.

Friday afternoon we all met at the Church for the rehearsal. I talked everyone through what we were doing and going to do, then we got everyone in place as if the processional had just ended. The bride’s father was standing between the bride and groom (OK, an editorial comment here. That’s the way it is supposed to be. Some wedding directors [who can be third cousins to Satan, for the record] like to have the father on the bride’s left arm for choreography’s sake–they think it is a clearer shot to his seat without stepping on the bride’s train after he gives the bride away, but there is powerful symbolic value to having him between the couple until he gives her away. Here endeth the lesson.)

I talked us through the first part of the service, through the traditional questions of intent, then I turned and looked at this Romanian father and asked, “Who brings this woman to be married to this man?”

He looked at me and said, clearly and firmly, “Her mother and I.” Perfect. Spot on, just perfect. I talked him through taking her right hand and placing it in the groom’s left hand, then giving her a little kiss on her cheek, and then turning to his right, away from the bride and toward the groom, so he would not step on her dress and/or train.

As he turned, and rotated until he was face-to-face, eye-to-eye with the groom, he stopped, and looked the groom in the eye. He raised his right hand, index finger pointed straight up, as if to make a point. Then he made the slash motion across his throat, and the groom’s eyes bugged out, my jaw hit the floor, and everyone in the room held their breath . . . until the bride and her father started laughing out loud! The tension cut, we all realized this was a joke! The father went on to his seat, the groom heaved a great sigh of relief, and we all went on with the rehearsal. It went without a hitch.

And the next day, the wedding went without a hitch, as well-and the father did not repeat his action!

A couple of years  later, I was walking through one of the overflow spaces after one of our Christmas Eve services, when I saw this couple, and recognized her parents with them. My face lit up like a Christmas Tree, and theirs did, too. We moved to greet each other, and I smiled, looked at the father, and promptly made the slash motion across my throat. He erupted in laughter, as we all did, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas before parting.

A year or so after that, the couple had their first child, and I was honored to be asked to administer the baptism. It was a great reunion of the families, as her parents came over from Romania. Then a couple of years later, along came child number two. But grandparents could not swing the trip this time. I got an idea, and called the bride to ask if her parents would watch the worship service live on the internet (we webcast our services.) She said they would, so I asked her to teach me how to do the baptism in Romanian. She argued that it would be too hard, but I persisted, and she said it, slowly, so I could write it down phonetically. I ran it past her, she was surprised that I got it right, and said so.

All weekend I practiced it out loud, so it was firm in my mind. The moment came in  he service, and when I took the child in my arms, I asked if the bride’s parents were in fact watching on the internet in Romania. She said they were, so I said, “Well, I hope I get this right, but if I mess it up, the Lord knows what we are trying to do.” And I administered the baptism in Romanian, and handed the baby back to them.

Later that morning, between a couple of the services, I saw the couple. The bride said she talked to her mom on the phone, and when I said the first words in Romanian, her mom started to cry.

That may just be the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.

Ash Wednesday.

Yeah, I know it was a week ago, in fact a week ago today (at the time of this writing), but a story from an Ash Wednesday about 16 years ago has been rattling around in my soul since last week.

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I have no memory—zero, nada, zippo, zilch—of going to an Ash Wednesday service. Our church may have had them, but I don’t recall ever going. We were pretty darn regular at worship, even went to Sunday School, but the only midweek service I have a definite memory of attending was the Maundy Thursday service when I received my first Communion. (Times have changed in the Presbyterian Church since then, but that will be a matter for another day.)

So when I landed in Seminary, and Ash Wednesday was a significant deal, and everyone started talking about “giving something up” for Lent (like liver and onions, maybe?), my learning curve was pretty steep. But I’m a quick study, and I caught on pretty quickly.

Then I graduated from Seminary, and was turned loose on the church. That first year, the church I was serving had an Ash Wednesday service, as did every church I served. Until I moved to the thriving metropolis of Pascagoula, MS, and started serving the First Presbyterian Church there (more in a moment).

These Ash Wednesday services in Protestant churches were powerful, meaningful, and liberating. In each of them, at some point, there would be a large urn in the front of the chancel, and at some point in the service, people would come forward, and place a small piece of paper in the urn, on which they had drawn a symbol, or written a word, and the paper was dropped in the urn as a symbolic act of releasing whatever was written on the paper. More often than not, this was a kinesthetic act or turning loose, and what was drawn or written reflected what was holding the person back from giving themselves fully to God, or some habitual sin that they could not walk away from.

The act was powerful, made even more so by the burning of the pieces of paper, symbolically burning what held one back from God. After that, the sign of the cross would be placed on everyone’s forehead, to remind them that they have been sealed by God’s grace.

So it came as a surprise to me that when my family moved to Pascagoula, this coastal community in a largely Roman Catholic-influenced culture, there was no Ash Wednesday service. Maybe it was a reaction against the prevailing culture, or something else, but I was surprised to find there was not tradition.

So I started one.

The first year, the service was well attended, and we followed the practice of writing something on paper, dropping it in an urn, and burning it. But I made a critical error. I used blank index cards. They took forever to burn, and filled the Sanctuary with this noxious smoke that choked people, and left a lingering (unpleasant) scent for several days. Before that service was over, I knew what we needed to do.

“Theatrical flash paper,” I said to the chair of the Worship Committee. “That’s what we’ll use next year.”

And so we did. I located a source, bought some (it’s not cheap, and I was trying to do this inexpensively (because I’m a tight-fisted Scot Presbyterian), and practiced burning a small piece a few times to make sure it would work. Flash paper burns fast, leaving nothing—NOTHING—behind, It’s gone in a flash!

SO Ash Wednesday came around that year, and we had over a hundred people attend as I recall. We reached that point in the service when people were invited to bring their small pieces of paper forward and drop them in the urn. The lights of the Sanctuary were dimmed about 90%, leaving only a very little bit of light for folks to see and move around by.

I should add at this point that the urn we were using was really a brass flower container, maybe 18 inches tall, about five or so inches wide at the top, sloping down in a conical shape to a point at the bottom.

All of the lights in the church were out now, and I struck a match, and as I looked at the flame, right before I dropped it in the urn—with 100+ pieces of flash paper, remember—I thought, “You know, I’ve not done this with so much flash paper before; I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And I leaned back slightly, then dropped the match into the urn. I watched as for about two-tenths of a second, the paper started to burn away, when suddenly, kaWHOOSH!, there was this explosion of light as an intensely bright, incredibly hot ball of flame shot up out of that urn, into the air before it dissipated!

I kid you not; women screamed, children started crying, and I was shocked, blinded by the bright light in eyes that had adjusted to the darkness. I could not see anything.

And the heat; it was so intense, I wondered if my face had been scalded or scorched, if the hair on the front of my head had been burned off, if I’d lost my eyebrows.

But I knew I could not say or do anything to attract attention to myself (I learned later that our daughter Anne asked, “Mom, is Dad OK?”); I knew that I needed to root my comments in such  a way that the congregation was directed to what God was doing in their lives.

But I was wigging out. One side of my brain was talking to the congregation, saying things like, “It’s all gone. Whatever was holding you back from God is gone. The Lord has taken it away. It’s all gone.” While the other part of my brain was thinking, “Oh, no; what do I look like? Is my face burned? Is it black from soot? Do I have hair?” then I had the thought as I was talking that I could reach up and adjust my glasses, and as I did so, I could feel to see if I still had eyebrows. By now my eyes had readjusted to the light, and I was searching the faces of those up close to me to see if they were reacting in any way. I felt and knew that I still had eyebrows, so all was OK.

The lights came back up for us to sing the closing hymn, and when I saw one guy looking at me and laughing, I wondered what in the world I looked like—but it turned out I was not burned or scarred in any way, he was simply laughing at the same thing I have been laughing about for the last 16 or so years. It was just plain funny!

The next year, we used a different, MUCH shallower, and wider, urn. And we never again sent a fireball into the Sanctuary!

Sometimes you see things that you just can’t believe. But you know you saw them, and it was in a day and age before cell phones, and cameras were not everywhere, so memories just have to hold onto the images.

During the summers when I was in college, I worked for the Arkansas Highway Department. The money was good, and the work was laborious enough that I knew I did not want to do that for the rest of my life, which meant that my grades stayed good. For the first summer I was the goob out there shoveling traffic and waving the flag; by the middle of my second summer I’d graduated to driving a dump truck some. By the third summer I was driving most every day.

One of the more odious tasks that feel to the maintenance branch (which I worked in) was the weekly—or less often—emptying of the trash cans at the roadside rest area on Highway 65. This was in a day where fast food restaurants were not as prolific as they are today, and this was a state highway and not an interstate, and it was one of those places where people would pull over and eat lunch, take a break, snooze a little (rest area, remember?) before resuming their drive.

There was a small bathroom there, and a full-time attendant who managed it and kept it clean, but from time to time, we were sent to empty the trash cans.

For the record, the trash cans were 55 gallon oil drums. Steel oil drums. They must have weighed a ton (OK, ask.com says they weigh 44 pounds.) But fill them with rainwater, drink cups, ten-day-old lunch residue, diapers (eck!) and the like, and they weighed a LOT.

At the beginning of the summer, three of us would go to attend to this task. One guy would climb into the bed of the dump truck; two others would lift the drum out of its holder, hoist it up, and help tip it over to empty it. Later in the summer, two of us were sent; one to heft it up, the other guy in the bed of the truck.

By the end of the summer, I was sent alone. It was a task to get the drum out of its holder, then climb up the side of the truck while lifting the can with me, then dump it’s odiferous and retch-producing contents into the truck. Oh, there were three of these cans, as I recall.

On this particular day, I’d managed to finish this task, and I was headed to the county dump to drop all the refuse. I saw the Job Supervisor driving towards me from the opposite direction, then his revolving light on the top of his truck came on, signaling me to stop. Joe stopped, jumped out of his truck and ran across the highway.

“Chuck, there’s a dead cow on the county line! Turn your truck around and follow me; DeQuincey (that was the name of the guy, I promise you)  is on his way with the wrecker to pick it up, then we’ll put it in your truck and you can take it to the dump!”

Joe ran back to his truck and took off. I turned around and started to follow him. We reached the county line on Highway 65, but there was no dead cow. Two State Police cars, but no dead cow. Joe got out and spoke to them for a moment, then ran back to me.

“The cow is down at Tamo on the other end of the county; go on and dump this trash, I’ll run ahead and meet DeQuincey and turn him around. You then meet him at Tamo (the county line which marked our responsibilities was there) and y’all deal with the cow.”

I did what I was told, dumped all the trash, and headed on south on 65. I was nearing the county line, getting closer and closer, wondering “Where in the world IS this cow, and where is DeQuincey?” I was headed into a long, blind, left-hand turn, and I knew that the county line was just around the curve. And let me tell you, we did not cross the county line to do anything; if that cow was three feet across the line, it was the next county’s responsibility.

Where in the world IS this,” I wondered, as I came around the curve.

And then I saw it.

You have to understand that our wrecker was an ancient, almost dilapidated rig, with an A-frame design, two strong pieces of steel sloping back and upwards from right behind the cab of the truck until it reached a point about ten feet off the ground. From there, a steel cable could be dropped to wrap around wheels or axles to hoist a truck up.

As I came around the curve, I could not believe what I saw; right there, RIGHT ON the county line, was the dead cow. DeQuincey had gotten here ahead of me, dropped the steel cable, wrapped it around the cow, and there it was, right out in front of God and the rest of the world, hanging about ten feet off the ground! Rigor Mortis had set in, so the legs were sticking straight out from its body, ten feet off the ground! Cars driving by, people rubbernecking, wrecks almost happening, but there it was. A cow, hanging in midair.

I turned around, backed under it, and seconds later heard and felt a big WHUMP, as DeQuincey released the cable, and the cow landed in the bed of the dump truck. We went back to the maintenance yard and ate our lunch, then that afternoon took the cow to the county dump.

I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes. Gee, I wish we’d had camera phones back then!