Archive for the month “November, 2012”

My Dog Hobo and the Greatest Lie I Ever Told

photo (4)Some lowlife had kicked him out a few miles north of town near some roadside trashcans. The highway roared 24/7 with oil field traffic, so we assumed the Texas asphalt would soon become his grave. On the third day, the little white dog, though all bones, was still among the living. We stopped and left him some scraps. Smart, he kept his distance until we drove away. But kind words and still more leftovers from our table wooed him a few paces closer every time. Then, he was ours, and we were his. Hobo, we named him.

While Hobo still sported four legs, he could monkey up trees. He could keep pace with jackrabbits. From the moment I walked out our back door, .22 Winchester in hand, he was as close as my shadow. On summer nights, I’d take him and two other dogs on raccoon hunts along the creek. The other dogs, purportedly coon dogs, had been dropped on their heads as pups and for the rest of their lives mistook skunks for raccoons. I showed up on our front door step reeking of skunk so often I’m surprised my mother didn’t move my bed to the barn. But a bath in tomato juice and I was human once more. The dogs, however, partook continually of the odor of their choice prey.

A friend would join me on occasion for a moonlight hunt. I’d let loose the dogs, they’d hightail it for the nearest clump of trees, noses screening the ground, and before long their bays would echo through the darkness. Most hunts consisted of chasing the dogs mile after mile, falling over rocks and limbs and barbed wire, getting up again, and finally catching up with them, only to be greeted by bits of skunk dangling from their proud, smiling jaws.

But not one night. On this night, they climbed the ladder of canine success one rung; they treed a possum. There’s nothing particularly endearing about a possum—they are, for all intents and purposes, rats afflicted with elephantitis—but at least they don’t stink. This unlucky animal scampered up a very tall elm tree, climbed out on a limb, and commenced glaring down at the dogs who had spoiled his evening.

Eager to compliment my dogs on a job well done, I left my shotgun in the hands of my friend, John, and began climbing the possum tree. John stood sentry, the dogs went increasingly berserk below, and I slowly ascended hand over foot. Fifteen feet in the air, I came face to face with the possum, who did not play dead but began hissing as if his life depended on it. But I hadn’t climb that far up to be hissed away by a rat on steroids. Plus, my dogs were counting on me. And I certainly couldn’t be a wuss with my friend watching below, cheering me on. So, breaking off a nearly dead branch, I hooked my leg around the trunk, stretched out and whacked the possum. Down he fell, the shotgun boomed, and a lone dog let loose with a cry of pain and regret and sorrow and loss and terror of tomorrow.

I cradled Hobo in my arms and ran toward home, his right front paw a mangled mess of torn flesh and shattered bones, littered with BBs from the blast. John jogged alongside us, berating himself, uttering a mantra of “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” But his voice truly trembled and broke when he imagined aloud what his father was going to do to him when he found out what John had done to my dog.

The vet amputated Hobo’s leg below the knee. The day we brought him home, he jumped into the back of our Chevy Silverado as if to prove, once and for all, that three legs or four, he was still all dog. He wasn’t as speedy, but he could still hobble at a fair clip. And he still accompanied the boy who had had mercy on him and made him part of the family.

My mom and dad weren’t angry with me when we got back to the house that night and I explained to them how John had climbed the tree, knocked down the possum, and I had accidentally shot Hobo with my shotgun. People make mistakes, especially when they’re teenage boys, and best to let well enough alone. Mercy always triumphs over judgment in the hearts of those who know all too well their own shortcomings.

John and I continued to be close friends, even a little better in the aftermath of that awful night. For a dog may be a man’s best friend, as the saying goes, but it doesn’t hurt to let your other friends know, sometimes in unexpected ways, just how much you care about them.

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Our Tiny God

Advent conceives a hope in the heart:
Creation reborn, a brand new start.
Eden becomes the trough of the beast,
Where lies our Lord, the greatest now least.
A tiny God with a cosmic plan
To save our world by becoming man.

The Flight from the Lie

Telling the truth is easy when you have nothing to lose. There is little virtue in that kind of honesty. It’s good, of course, always preferable to the lie, but such risk-free truth-telling is akin to a eunuch boasting of chastity. But when your career, job, marriage, freedom–your world–may be lost if the truth struggle from your lips, the lie is as tempting as food is to a starving man. And once a morsel is tasted, the whole meal is soon devoured. Last night, as my wife and I watched the movie, ”Flight,” I was reminded of that hunger–that I too have experienced in full–and the ultimate starvation resulting from the food of falsehood.

In the movie, the main character (played by Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic and an airline pilot, an explosive alliance he has kept intact for years by perfecting the art of lying. When called to testify about a crash during which he was pilot, he was being advised by his friend about how to answer questions about his addiction when Washington cut him off, ”Don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking.” He needed no help. He could deceive as professionally as he could land a plane.

As in the movie, so in real life, the more the lie becomes your god, the more the truth becomes your devil. It harasses you, stalks you night and day, and reigns as the supreme fear of your life. But to the lie you give your all–your time, your talents, your treasures…and your pleasures. And oh how freely it accepts the sacrifice, repaying it with the continuance of that fleeting happiness that the lie gives. Even when, in a moment of weakness, you tell a little white truth, the lie is quick to forgive, for it knows that in your heart of hearts, you remain devoted to falsehood.

But for how long? In the movie, Washington eventually reached a point where–in his own words–he had told so many lies that it was as if he ran out of them. His quota had been reached, and all that remained was the tortuously beautiful, painfully liberating truth.

One of my favorites teachers, Kenneth Korby, once reminded us that the only time a liar tells the truth is when he says, ”I am a liar.” When that moment comes, the sick man takes his first step toward healing. For confession is the radical act of defiance against the idolatrous lie. The devil, gilded with divinity, is unmasked as the father of falsehood when his would-be son utters the truth.

There is forgiveness for the liar, but he will never be the same. Sin alters a man in ways in which he, only in a state of repentance and recovery, is acutely aware. He knows now, from his own experience, not merely from the Bible, the profundity of his own weakness, the depths to which he is willing to descend to protect his petty ego, the lies he is willing to promulgate in service to that which is his ultimate destruction.

The sad irony for such a man is that his greatest struggle becomes not refraining from the lie but embracing the truth that God forgives him. For the more keenly aware he is of his sin, the more incredible seems the love of God for such a man as he.

So he continues to pray what is possibly the most honest prayer in all the Scriptures: ”Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.”

Flight-Plane-Upside-Down

How a Badger Taught Me That God Has Ears

About an hour southwest of Lubbock, TX, surrounded by sand, barbed wire fences, and rows of cotton straight as a rifle barrel, sits a small town called Seagraves. There my mom and dad met and married. There most of my family lived when I was growing up. And there a lifetime of memories were made for me in those days when life was still simple and good. And there, one night, on the outskirts of town, it happened.

My dad’s dad raised greyhounds. Though I called him Granddaddy, I’m fairly certain the dogs called him God. He certainly earned their adoration. I can recall on several occasions when he’d stop by the butcher, pick up a box or two of meat scraps, and cook up a veritable feast out back for all the hounds. They had his very tangible love, and he had theirs.

I was a boy who loved dogs, who loved hunting, and who loved his Granddaddy. So, you can imagine, that when we could make a league of these three loves—hunting with dogs with my Granddaddy—I was on the tiptop of the world. We’d wait till it was good and dark, load about eight greyhounds into the back of his old blue Ford, and drive into the boondocks. Once there, as Granddaddy poked along mile after mile of dirt roads, I’d stand sentry in the truck bed, with eager dogs milling about my feet, and spotlight barren fields for the telltale glowing eyes of one soon-to-be unlucky rabbit. When the eyes shone, I’d slap the top of the truck, he’d hit the brakes, and the pack of dogs would explode from the vehicle. Their speed is the stuff of legend, and rightly so. As long as I kept the light trained on the rabbit, no matter how fleet of foot he be, he’d soon be meeting his Maker.

But for as long as we’d been hunting, I’d been hearing from Granddaddy about how much he wished we’d happen upon a badger some night. Not because badgers are speedy; a fat dachshund could outrun one. But because they’re the Mohammed Alis of the animal world. Their hide has titanium mixed in it. They have the bite of a pit bull. They’re a beastly combination of a god, devil, and tank. Put a badger in the middle of a pack of dogs, and you’ll witness the acme of war. But time after time, plenty of pairs of rabbit eyes shone in the darkness, promising a chase, but never those yellow eyes of hell, portending a battle.

Until one night, an idea popped into my head. While Granddaddy was hooking up spotlights and arranging leashes for the dogs, I sat in the cab of the Ford and prayed a very short, very simple prayer, that on this night, God would give us a badger. I didn’t pray for forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, or world peace. All this ten-year-old wanted was a badger. So that’s what I asked for.

On ordinary nights, before the actual hunt began, we’d stop at a field to let the dogs run about, empty their bladders, and load back up for the spotlighting. But on this particular night, we didn’t even make it that far before the long arm of the Lord reached down from above, picked me up by the shoulders, lifted me to heaven, and pointed to those huge ears of his that, somehow and someway, are always open to our prayers, even when we pray for badgers.

The fight lived up to my expectations. I expect the dogs suffered more than their adversary. There were plenty of yelps, a few screams, and enough bloodthirsty growls to fill the empty night to capacity. One of the dogs got into such a predicament with the badger that my Granddaddy leapt to his rescue, somehow getting the dog out of the badger’s jaws, but also becoming a near casualty in the process. After half an hour or so, when the dogs were all fought out and the badger was a little weary himself, we let him waddle away while we regrouped and loaded up to search for more civilized prey.

When we got back home around midnight, Granddaddy and I were stripping off our hunting clothes. He showed me what had happened. When he’d stepped in to rescue his beloved dog, the badger had lunged for him with tooth and claw. He’d ripped through the pair of insulated overalls, the pair of jeans, the pair of long-johns, and the sock. And there on his leg was a miniscule scratch, just deep enough for a small trickle of blood, now long since dried to his skin. Awfully close.

Call me a fool, but I’ve long wished that the badger had ripped through my clothes that night. And that his tooth and claw had sunk deep enough into my skin to give me a scar that’d never go away. I could use that scar now. It’d do me a world of good to see it etched into my body, to remind me every time I saw it that we have a God who has ears, who answers prayers, even little prayers by little boys who love dogs, and hunting, and Granddaddies—and who, as men now grown, for whom life is not quite as simple and good as it used to be, fight to believe.

The Day My Mom Found My Playboy

A boy’s interest in girls begins before conception, when the god Eros takes his soul out for a night on the town, and whispers titillating secrets to the boy he’ll never forget. Uncle Rufus may be 95, deaf as a post, and sit in his wheelchair playing dominoes all day, but he’ll still have an educated opinion on which nurse in the home is hottest. Any man who disagrees with this should probably not admit it.

When I was a teenager, I had this friend. We’ll call him Gene, since Gene was his name. And Gene’s dad had one, and only one thing, going for him. He not only had Playboys in the house; he actually subscribed to the magazine. I mean, his name and address were right there on the cover. I was shocked, and very eager to pilfer an issue first chance I had.

That chance soon came. Tucking the magazine into my boot, I smuggled it into my Southern Baptist home, and stashed it in my bedroom where no one would ever find it. Like most new converts, I became exceedingly zealous in my worship of these unclad goddesses. I’d lie to you and tell you how beautiful the women were, but, honestly, I don’t recall focusing much of their faces.

Nor do I recall focusing much on the face of my Mom when, after school one day, she sat me down to tell me that, while cleaning my room, she’d found my “book.” Thirty years later, I still recall wondering why in the name of all that is unholy, would she call my Playboy a “book”? In what will go down in my biography as quite possibly the most embarrassing interrogation I’ve ever sat through, she questioned the original owner of said “book”, whence its acquisition by her son, the amount of time said “book” had been in her son’s possession, and several other items of interest to the court. If she’d have beaten me with a 2×4, but never uttered a word, it would have thrilled me to no end. Anything but this. Finally, in mercy, she said that she didn’t plan on telling my Dad, but that such material ought never enter our home again. I received the maternal admonition and absolution, wiped the sweat from my brow, and retreated to solitude to bemoan not only the loss of my religion, but the newly acquired shame that was eating its way into me.

I am old enough now to know that pornography is as real as a politician’s honesty. And I am also old enough to know that the real body of a woman is better, worlds better, than the images that shine on glossy magazines or writhe on computer screens. For the female body is poetry—the best, most exquisite kind. For here is rhythm and rhyme that a man can make love to, that will bear his children, and into whose breasts he can sink his face and cry when his world collapses round about him.

Woman may have been created from the rib of a man, but it is the woman that makes the man.

It is not good for the man to be alone; God never uttered a greater truth.

Happy 65th Birthday to My Mom

For my Mom, on her 65th Birthday

As I was knit together
In the safety of your womb,
When you nursed and diapered me,
Watched me crawl from room to room,
You loved me.

As Kindergarten began,
And I moved from grade to grade,
When I laughed at play with friends,
And cried at mistakes I made,
You loved me.

When my voice began to change,
When I fell in love with girls,
When trapping was my passion,
And hunting coons and squirrels,
You loved me.

When high school years were over,
And I packed up all my things,
When you cried a mother’s tears,
But rejoiced that I’d grown wings,
You loved me.

When I grew into a man,
Blessed with children of my own,
In the best and worst of times,
Married or living alone,
You loved me.

As year by year passes by,
As challenges come and go,
One gift will ever remain,
One truth I will always know:
You, Mom, love me.

Black Friday

On one Black Friday the purchase was made,
The priceless price of God’s own blood was paid.
Jesus bought us back so we are his own,
Heirs of His kingdom who sit on his throne.

Whiskey Baptism

I visited him on a fairly regular basis. He lived in a small, arthritic house on the outskirts of town. Every home has its own odor; his smelled of alcohol, cigarettes, and hopelessness. I was his pastor. Books lined the shelves in his living room, and in these we found camaraderie. He was the most well-read man in my parish, probably the whole town. With shaking hands, he’d remove his reading glasses when I walked in, put his book down, and we’d begin to talk about the latest Dickens I was reading, or the WWII novel he was in the middle of. He was a man of books. And he was a man of whiskey.

He never divulged to me his whole story. Bits here and there snuck out in conversation. But there are always others, especially in a small town, especially in a church, who are all too willing to fill in the gaps. His was the human story: loss, regret, grief–the predictable, painful, powerful shit of life. A few people can endure a Job-like hell, get up, bless God, and face the future stronger than ever. Most of us aren’t such saints. We hobble along, half-walking, half-crawling into the will-be from the what-was. And some of us just sit, drowning our sorrows in a baptism of whiskey, or women, or pleasure, or careers, or whatever dulls the pain.

One of the most amazing stories in the Bible is that no one threw a stone at the woman caught in adultery. I find it hard to believe. For that is not how it works in real life. There are always those ‘without sin,’ and they are usually the ones who boast of being such poor, miserable sinners. But they carry rocks in their pockets. And when vice appears, they hurl their stones with virtuous, bulls-eye indignation.

They certainly would have found a target in my friend—now many years deceased. What I find in him now, as I look back, wiser in years and not nearly as virtuous as I once thought I was, is a brother in suffering. I gave him what love I had, meager as it was. And perhaps now, in full love, he prays for me. He prays for me and all who bear unhealed wounds, self-inflicted or otherwise, who foolishly look for relief in dry baptisms, where the gods who disappoint reign. He prays we find what he didn’t, but now has.

 

Musical Time Machine

Songs are musical time-machines. You hear the melody, the words wash over you, and in the blink of an eye, you’re “there.” There, hearing the song playing over the radio as your teenage girlfriend sits beside you and takes your hand in her own. There, mom and dad in the rear-view mirror, car packed to the gills, a college dormitory awaiting you. There, crying your eyes out over the break-up you thought would never happen. The music plays on and on, and you go back and back. Songs, transcendent melodies that harbor the past, pull you toward the memories of yesteryear like they were yesterday. Such is the muscle of music, holding tight in your heart the grip of the past.

For me, among the many memories that songs elicit, one that always comes back to me involves a dear elderly lady named Alvena Stein. She was a lifelong member of the congregation where I served as pastor in Wellston, Oklahoma. And she was one of those dear saints whom I could visit on my darkest, I-just-wanna-throw-in-the-towel days in the ministry, and leave an hour later with a smile on my face. Talking with her had a way of putting life in perspective, and restoring joy to my heart, every time. Her life, as with every life, had had its ups and downs. A bride at the ripe old age of sixteen, and a widow at the young age of forty-eight, Alvena knew joy and sorrow. With four daughters, and thirteen grandchildren, and plenty more great-grandchildren and other family members, she was enveloped by those whom she loved and who loved her. Such was the love of Alvena’s family that they adopted me and my family into their own while we lived among them.

The psalmist writes that our earthly lives last “seventy years, or eighty, if we have the strength.” As if proving the poet right, and showing the world that she did have that kind of strength, Alvena fought on to her eightieth year. But after a series of battles, and a gradually weakening body, it became clear that the time of her departure was drawing nigh. I visited her at home, and in the hospital, bringing her the nourishment of God’s word and Christ’s meal. And I also sang songs to her and with her, hymns that poetized the faith she held dear and the hope of victory disguised as death, hymns and songs that she had had on her lips and in her heart from infancy. When the inevitable day came, the 29th of July, 2000, with two of her daughters in the room with her, Alvena was ready. Ready because the Lord had readied her with his love, and now stood to meet her face-to-face in the heavenly fatherland.

I arrived at the hospital shortly after Alvena had passed beyond this world. She lay at peace in her bed, surrounded by her four daughters, their husbands, and others who had been blessed by her love. We prayed the Our Father together, and the 23rd Psalm. And in that room replete with both sadness and joy, gain and loss, but above all hope, I sang the stanza of a hymn that I had sung to Alvena many times in the months leading up to this day.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

Home. That’s where Alvena had gone—to her true home. Her pilgrimage here in this vale of tears was complete. And now she rested, for all time, in the bosom of Abraham, of whom she was a daughter. She had fought the good fight, she had finished the race, she had kept the faith. And in so doing, she had been a true martyr—a witness—to me and so many others who journey still, who long for the bosom of our father Abraham.

Over the years, every time I sing that hymn stanza, I go back. I go back to that hospital room, back to the family that grieved their loss and rejoiced at Alvena’s gain, back to the woman who was such an encouragement to me, even though I was supposed to be an encouragement to her. The man who, over four hundred years before, wrote the hymn I sang that day, could never have imagined the power his words would wield for good in the lives of countless multitudes, of whom I am but one. His words take me back, but they also point me forward—forward to the day when, like Alvena, I will close to my eyes to this world, unfearing, for I know that I will open them to see my Savior and my Fount of grace, arms open wide, receiving me as his own.

King of the Double-Wide

Willy didn’t have any teeth. That wouldn’t have been noticeable had he worn his dentures, but they hurt his gums. He shaved about once a week, wore cowboy boots, and laughed like a man triple his size. We worked together in the oil field, on the night shift. He once told me that in a dream he had, I was the hero, leading him and two others drivers down serpentine back roads, through blinding fog, in the black of night, back to our truck yard. Willy could make you feel like a hero, even if you were one only in a dream.

There wasn’t much to do in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in the TX panhandle, but smoke, drink coffee, and bullshit. So that’s what we did. I knew my coworkers too well. One guy had a wife who kept lesbian lovers on the side (much to his seeming delight). Another—the only true anarchist I’ve even known—hated cops with such ferocity he had a tattoo on his arm with an officer in the crosshairs. And still another told such monstrous lies I think even the devil would have blushed to repeat them.

One night we all were relating what we’d do with the money we won in a lottery. Our answers were as predictably boring as those discussions usually produce. All except Willy’s. When Willy hit the jackpot, his dream was to take the winnings, find the biggest double-wide he could get, buy it and a few acres, and settle down to a life of leisure with his family. Willy, like all men, had his dream.

I’ve told that story before, and laughed at my friend, but I don’t think I’ll do that anymore. For I’ve come to realize that dreams don’t have to be big to be good dreams. What makes the man who dreams of becoming king of the world a better dreamer than the man who wants to be king of his double-wide? What makes the woman who dreams of becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 company a better dreamer than the woman who dreams of giving birth to a child? I’d rather be the companion of a man who dreams of what will make him happy, than one who dreams of what will make him rich, or powerful, or famous.

Willy was a simple man with a wife, children, grandchildren, and a dream. He had worked hard his whole life. He drove 1 ½ hours every day to get to work, worked a 12 hour shift, then drove back home. Then got up and did it all over again. In that double wide trailer perhaps he would have come into his kingdom. His was a good dream, for he dreamed of being a hero for those he so dearly loved.

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