Christmas Surprise

March 8, 2017

Not too sure how long it has been since I actually sat down and put fingers to keys and felt as if I had something to add to the global blogosphere; but I decided it was time. This little tale begins on Christmas Eve 2016 (with a glance back to August 2015), and jumps into 2017 pretty quickly.

First the glance to August 2015; I can’t believe it, looking back, and discovering that I did not blog this, but on August 22, 2015, our daughter Anne became Mrs. Ryan Brody. Anne and Ryan repeated their vows at Church in the Pines on the shore of Lake Martin, AL–the place where I have been privileged to preach for about 20 years, and only 3 miles from the family Lake House. It was a glorious day, the day every family dreams of, and every detail was absolutely perfect. I delighted in the privilege of walking my daughter down the aisle, and the service was begun by Dan McCall, my first boss out of Seminary, and the pastor who baptized Anne. After I “gave her away,” I stepped around and officiated the remainder of the ceremony.

While the outdoor service (Alabama in August?!) was a bit steamy, the reception was indoors where the AC was set to blizzard. We danced, dined, and partied until the newlyweds departed for Atlanta and then their honeymoon. We returned to the Lake House, where a bunch (BUNCH) of friends were coming to hang out, have a beer, and catch up.

On returning to the house, I was a bit distressed to not be able to locate Gumbo, our almost-15 year old black lab. Long story short, I found him a bit later; he had “expired,” and gone to that place where there are no fences, no cats, and the rabbits are all fat and slow. We buried him there, and took solace in our daughter’s joy in marriage.

We pretty well decided that our dog days were behind us. Lib was tired of sweeping up hair, and I didn’t think I had another dog burial in me. So life moved on.

Until Christmas Eve 2016.

I arrived home a bit before 10:00 PM, having been in or observed what felt like 100 worship services (in actuality it was only eight); I was exhausted, and as I pulled in the driveway I watched Lib run through the kitchen, and wondered, “What’s that all about?” I parked in the garage, walked in, and did not see her. I made it to the den, calling her name, and nothing. I walked upstairs, tossed my suit coat on the bed, and turned to see her step into the opening to the sunroom off our bedroom, as a puppy trotted out of our bathroom into the sun room.

Lib smiled and said, “Merry Christmas,” as I gawked and asked, “Have you lost your mind?!”

She is a pure bred English Lab, and we named her “Scout” (as in Jean Louise in To Kill a Mockingbird). Here she is at about 4.5 months: Scout

This little wiggle worm (see her tail moving too fast to be photographed?!) has brought so much joy into our lives, “It takes two to tell it” (as my mother in law would say.) We have spoiled her rotten, trained her pretty well (she’s easily the smartest dog I have ever had), and she has spoiled us.

And she has taught me about the love of God.

In the mornings, I get up at an unthinkable hour (4:30) to have my quiet time and exercise before the day begins. I let Scout out to “do her business,” then she goes to my office where I have my devotions. I’ve put a bed down there, and she has a couple of toys, and a chew or two. But what she wants is to be in my lap (even at 35 pounds now!), licking my face, begging for attention.

And I find myself wondering, “Why do I not hunger for God’s attention the way this little girl hungers for mine?!” She has inspired me, and taught me that simple affection-pure, unbridled joy-is what God wants from us, as much as Scout gives it to me. She is unquestionable an instrument of sanctification in my life.

And wow, do I (we!) love her!!!

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

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!

Pop a Wheelie!

May 29, 2013

I spent the better part of Monday (May 27, 2013) at the top of Lookout Mountain, TN. On the one hand, it is because my sister-in-law and brother-in-law live there, and they are the greatest people in the world and it was great fun to hang out with them. On the other hand, they were a cheap place to stay in order to spend the day as a volunteer at the US Pro Cycling Championships.
Because of a connection I made some years ago when I volunteered at the (now defunct) Tour of Georgia, I had an inside track for this gig. I was assigned to work the KOM (King of the Mountain) station in the Women’s and Men’s races. After a few opening circuits in downtown Chattanooga, the racers made their way up Ochs (pronounced ‘ox”) Highway, then down Scenic Highway, a 16+ mile loop. The women completed the mountain loop twice, the men four times. From downtown, there was a roughly 1150 foot climb in elevation over the course of roughly eight miles.
You may think that sounds like “not so much,” but trust me—this was a monumental (pardon the pun) climb. And these racers, with monstrous thighs and phenomenal cardiovascular systems, powered through it.
In every bicycle race, there is something called the “broom wagon.” This is to “sweep up” cyclists who abandon (quit) the race, or fall so far behind that officials deem them necessary to be removed. The broom wagon this past Monday had four brooms attached to its grill, making it unmistakable.
On one of the men’s circuits—being run in the afternoon when it was quite hot—I was directing traffic from the top, where the racers topped out and turned down the mountain, when it seemed that everyone, racers and cars and support vehicles, etc., had come through. But I realized that the broom wagon had not passed. I stood in the intersection, wondering and waiting, when I saw flashing lights approaching from downhill. After a moment, I saw the bobbing helmet of a racer, almost being pushed by the broom wagon. I instantly felt sorry for the guy, being so far behind everyone else. All of the many spectators there began clapping, half-heartedly for this guy, and ringing cowbells (what is it with that tradition?) As the guy drew closer, listening to the weak support for him, I felt even worse.
He reached the KOM line. And then it happened.
Exhausted, discouraged, not motivated by the crowd, this guy had the audacity to pop a wheelie for a few seconds. And when he did it, the crowd went wild. They exploded in cheers, yelling and screaming for him, cowbells ringing madly.
And he made the turn and disappeared.
I did not catch his race number, I have no idea who he was, or whether he even finished the (100+ mile) race.
But I know that for one moment, this guy set the world on fire.
As I watched him ride away, I did not feel sorry for him anymore. I realized that to be in that race, he has to be an incredible athlete, and I felt pride and inspiration.
Some day you may be dragging your way along, slogging through life, feeling like everyone is beating you and better than you.
When that happens, pop a wheelie to the amazement of everyone around you. Not literally, but through doing something to make someone else smile, lift someone else’s spirits, just do something that no one thinks you have in you—and the world will stand back and cheer.

The very first wedding over which I officiated took place at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, GA. I was the Associate Minister of the church, and I’d been there about six months, coming right out of Seminary, fresh, naive, wet behind the ears, innocent, and simply dumb as dirt. For gosh sakes, I grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, graduated from Arkansas State University, that great academic powerhouse (NOT!), and managed to get INTO Seminary on academic probation (from which I was released after one semester, for the record.)

I’d arrived in Augusta single but engaged, was ordained on a Sunday in August (when it was 108 degrees–that’s another story) and then married the following Saturday in Montgomery. Yeah, a pretty low-key week.

So the Senior Pastor, Dan McCall, bounced this wedding to me, and I’d managed to meet with the couple about four times, doing my best to offer premarital counseling, wanting to die when I spoke with them about sex, but we’d gotten through it all, planned the ceremony, and the big evening was upon us.

I recall that it was about a week before Christmas; 12/17/83 to be precise, having just checked my record book. The church was resplendently decorated with poinsettias, making flowers for the family easy. And nonexistent.

The time came for us all to enter, and I came in with the groom and Best Man, we took our places and I watched as the doors in the back opened, and I saw the first Bridesmaid.

She was wearing solid, basic black. Now, today, that’s “chic,” or so I am told, but in 1983, it was more than cutting edge. I recall thinking, “Wait a minute; is this a wedding or a funeral!” To top it off, that first Bridesmaid was about 8 months pregnant. The ladies, instead of carrying flowers, were carrying Christmas wreaths (cute), but with this lady, the wreath was resting horizontally on her belly, rather than hanging vertically like all the others.

Anyway, I recovered, I hope that my face did not give away the shock, and everyone else came in, took their places, and we proceeded through the service.

We reached the point in the ceremony when the couple have repeated their vows, rings have been exchanged, and I had pronounced them “husband and wife.” It was time to pray for the couple, and it was their desire to kneel for the prayer. I said, “Let us pray,” and nodded to the groom to hold the bride’s arm as she knelt. He did so, she proceeded to kneel, and I thought, “Oh, sweet Jesus. She’s wearing a hooped skirt!”

Now, think about that. What a lady will do in a case such as that is to pull the front of the hooped skirt forward, and kneel under it. This bride did not do that, she simply knelt, ending up on the front of the hoops, which had the result of popping the bottom of her dress back, so that there was a clear view of . . . well, whatever there was to view.

I have no idea what I prayed or how I prayed it, because all I was thinking was that Hollywood had just lit up, and everyone had a free view. Before I said “Amen,” I whispered to the groom to stand the bride up, NOW, hoping that all the while “every head had been bowed and every eye had been closed.”

We finished the ceremony, took pictures, and I wandered to our Fellowship Hall where the reception was. One pass let me know that I would not be lingering, and I went home soon thereafter, grateful to have survived my first wedding.

I have well over 300 weddings under my belt now, with plenty more stories to share. Stay tuned, my friends.