Monthly Archives: December 2012

A Cotton Christmas Tree–Not In My House

My favorite color is not green–most of the time.  Christmas amends the rule.  Christmas brings green and red from the color charts and predominantly marks them in my mind.  I want to see and smell spruce.  Christmas isn’t quite right without those two indicators that the celebration of the birth of Jesus is near.

Life in el Quindio, the center (eje) of coffee plantations of Colombia, South America, brings green into view everywhere.  You see the deep shining green of the coffee tree leaves and the more muted greens of the leaves of the platano and banana trees everywhere you drive.  But, the spotting of a classical North American spruce or pine is not only nearly impossible; it is illegal to harvest them in Colombia.  So, the evergreen Christmas tree is not a part of the decorations in Colombian homes during December.


The Watkins family always made a big deal about the search for the perfect tree.  Dad would grab his double-edged ax, and my sis and I would follow his big footsteps in the snow deep into the timber to find the right tree.  Of course, color, fullness, shape and height were the primary selection factors.

In Colombia, elaborate “pesebres” (nativity scenes) are front and center in most living rooms and churches.  If you see a “Christmas tree,” it is a simple limb severed from a hardwood tree and stuck into a five-gallon bucket.  Each square inch of every branch is then covered with cotton; and, you end with a white tree decorated with bulbs and lights.  For me, the “swab” tree is more irritating than helpful in creating the spirit of Christmas giving.  So, during our first treeless Christmas, my letters includes brief complaints about the lack of a “proper” tree.  In other words, in regard to Christmas trees, I am not adjusting well to my new culture.    I keep my discontent quiet around Colombians, but vented my feelings through writing.

As a rule, most North American churches have their share of sympathetic members.  They take the needs of missionaries seriously. Additionally, every church has one or two “can-do” people.  They make things happen.  Betty Frazier was one of those people.  She wrote us a letter nearly every week reporting on her family and the “goings on” at the church I had pastored before leaving for Colombia.  Simultaneously, we were sending our journals to Betty so she could understand our life on the mission field.  No doubt our letters often rested in the same post office going in different directions.

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Betty is distraught by our lack of a tree.  She buys a $150 tree on half price in January and spends a morning packaging it for the three-month journey by boat to Colombia via surface mail.  Betty is a very spontaneous person, capable of both bouts of empathy and anger.  Her postal clerk notifies her that the post office cannot mail her immense package to Colombia in one box.  Instead, the post office requires two smaller boxes.  This sets Betty into a spontaneous rant about the government’s unnecessary regulations and exploitation of the public, leaving the clerk in a nervous sweat in the middle of winter.

Later the same day Betty returns to the same post office, tugging her two boxes behind her.  She is not smiling when she pushed them over the counter and into the emotionally bruised chest of the reluctant clerk.  This time the packages meet the code for size and weight.  But the news that the cost for surface mail will be $78.75 stuns Betty.  That is more than she paid for the discounted tree.  Again, she delivers a blistering review of the United States Postal Service; and makes it clear that she wants her complaint passed to the proper authorities including Tennessee’s BB senators-Republicans, Brock and Baker.

The Christmas tree arrives in early July–two massive cardboard boxes, apparently gift wrapped with more than 100 postage stamps of small denominations, all carefully placed by Betty’s loving hands.  We gladly pay the $30 custom fee and return to our home knowing our 1977 tree will be green, the proper color for Christmas trees.


An Air Warrior Is Defined by Battles Fought, not Miles Flown

Many people flying during the holidays go to battle and lose the war.  American Airlines promotes an annual road warrior contest.  The winner writes an essay on his/her most memorable airline experience. I considered entering but assumed they wouldn’t accept my entry since the flights didn’t occur on American.  I usually fly American if possible, but all North American based airlines suspended service to Liberia during the civil wars of the 1990’s.

I would define an air warrior not by miles flown but by the combat endured.  And, my story recalls one skirmish after another.  Even though I have traveled by air to more than 50 countries, nothing can compare to this assignment.

The battle began in New York City when I boarded an international flight to Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Air Afrique.  Sometimes, you get a sense about what will follow by how it begins.  We sat grounded by fog for three hours before take off.  I added the three hours to the projected flight time and prayed that I could shorten the trip with some serious sleep once we left the tarmac.  It is amazing what one sleeping pill and a glass of wine can do at 33,000 feet.

Thirteen hours later we landed in Dakar, Senegal for fuel and more passengers.  The agent booked us through Senegal and the Ivory Coast because there were no direct flights to Monrovia.  I knew my first trip to Africa would be a challenge.  We were some of the first people to visit the country during the brief period of peace enforced by the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group.  Joe Snider, a church colleague, and I made the journey to encourage Liberian Christians and review how we could best help in the country’s rehabilitation efforts.  We would visit the churches, a medical clinic and a boarding school yet to report on the damage to their physical buildings.

Our landing in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, included the amenity that we would be rewarded at nearly every stop both going and coming—a delay.  The layover grew from four to eight hours, pushing back our arrival in Conakry, Guinea to midnight.

The Guinea airport resembled a sidewalk sale with one hundred customers looking for the same bargain in front of one table.  Suddenly and shockingly, two scrappy sweating teenagers grabbed our bags and shouted something in French.  We walked briskly as they led us through a maze of customs, immigration, health checks, and dispatch.  Our self-appointed helpers then tossed our bags into the trunk of a taxi in the dimly lit parking zone, and held up a sign in English, “$20 please.”  Joe knew that was way too high from his previous flights in Africa and gave them $5.  The guys were not happy and undoubtedly cast a few French curses our way as we crawled into the dilapidated taxi and slammed the door.  I was learning that African airports are no place for timidity or kindness.  Instead, the key behaviors are aggression and firmness. We handed our hotel address to the driver, and he nodded, smiled, and mumbled, “I know.  We go.”

Within a minute we left civilization and entered a freaky darkness of a twilight zone.  It took an eternal ten minutes before we would see another vehicle or  a light.  I looked toward Joe periodically and he sat like a stoic monk, evidently not as concerned as I.  My mind played tricks on my insecurity and I finally whispered, “Could this guy being taking us some where to jump, dump, and rob us?”  He just smiled and said, “You worry too much.”

We finally arrived at the tiny hotel where a simple card table served for check in when the attendant finally answered our rapping on the door.  Again, the driver requested $30 and we decided to give him $15.  He kept badgering us through our registration and started to follow us to our room until the attendant turned him back.

This would be a short night because of our 8 a.m. departure.  The next morning we spoke with another traveler and learned the taxi fare to or from the airport was $8.  When we arrived at the airport the baggage boys converged upon us like ducks looking for a piece of bread tossed on the ground.  Finally two guys won the screaming contest, grabbed our bags and pulled us toward their pre-determined path.  It was scary to lose complete control of our possessions and our movement through the airport. We went behind the airline counter, through the a filthy employee break room, and unto the airfield.  The one visible plane belonged to a different airline.  No one had looked at our tickets until that point.  They just assumed we were taking the only departure that day.

We soon learned that our particular plane didn’t fly on Friday.  Our agent had not done due diligence in researching African airlines.  So, there we were, looking for another taxi back to the city with no way to contact our Liberian hosts about the change in arrival dates.

It was good to have a day to rest. Black marketeers approached us in the lobby offering us diamonds; an opportunity we would have in other hotels, coffee shops, and water closets along our journey.

The next morning we were back at the negotiating table with the taxi driver because of our early departure; he insisted that doubled the price.  I had begun formulating in my mind a presentation to mail to Guinness to nominate Conakry as the most difficult airport in the world.  I later changed my mind after a few hours in the Yamoussoukro airport.

This time the baggage boys ignored us and we pushed our way through the throng of people to the miniature airport check-in.  We reverted to the early days of international aviation—no computers, no scales, no respect for lines, and no nothing.  We had fallen right into the center of chaos and the French language.  We literally shoved our way toward the counter as others tried to make end runs around us.  I used my suitcase to block the flow on my right while Joe’s extra thirty pounds slowed the other side.  People warned us that Air Afrique always sold unlimited tickets for limited seating; and the seats were given to the fastest, the strongest and the loudest.  We stepped to bat with the best we had of all three, forgetting all the manners our mothers had taught us.

Somehow, we managed to get our tickets approved and then faced the expected bribe for the custom’s officer as well as the departure tax.  All of this required francs.  Fortunately, we had enough of the currency to pay these fees because it was obvious there was no monetary exchange service in the airport.  We met “Zacchaeus” at the last desk before leaving for the plane. He insisted on seeing our billfold to check for Guinea currency.  He was firm that no Guinea money could leave the country.  He confiscated the last few bills and coins we had.  We were glad to toss that money into his pot to exit the country.

When we climbed the wobbly rusted steps I could see we would be flying on a small W.W. II aircraft.  The well-appointed aircraft included no life jackets, no inflight service, no seatbelts, and no escape orientation. A couple of caps over the oxygen ports were totally missing.  I was thankful there were two people in the front seats, so I assumed we at least had two pilots.

One half of the passenger seats were removed to clear space for baggage and cargo.  It would be misleading to say we had no stewardess.  There was a lady that stood at the entrance of plane to check our tickets, and then disappeared until she came back with coffee for herself and sat down never to move again.

This was my first time to travel with baggage that moved around, made disgruntled sounds and even stunk up the place.  Not only were we hauling local beer, boxes of fruit and vegetables; we had two white bearded goats, one plump pig past ready for market, and several crates of restless white and red chickens.  Wouldn’t you know I sat next to one of the goats that kept trying to nibble on my pant leg?  The brief flight could not end quickly enough.

We arrived in Monrovia 24 hours late and unannounced.  Since Jimmy Carter was also arriving for peace meetings, the tiny airport was buzzing with people.  Our Cumberland Presbyterian hosts were not at the airport to receive us.  We cleared baggage claim, immigration, customs, and the health official—it was so good to hear English again, even if the accent was heavy and difficult to understand.  I learned the importance of having a travel mate in the third world; one person could watch the luggage while the other did necessary paper work and handled all negotiation.

Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of the taxi driver.  We explained we were on a mission trip and he proceeded to charge us three times the normal cost.

(Note: Our visit in Liberia was ten days of unbelievable exposure to sadness and despair.  We did our best to bring some hope, but we left with a feeling the peace initiative would not last.  And, it didn’t.  But, this story only tells the difficulties of air travel.)

When we tried to confirm our flight to Abidjan to leave Liberia, agents told us the flight had been cancelled.  Their next flight was four days later—just what I wanted, four more days in a country tittering on the edge of war and swarming with peacekeeping soldiers.  So, instead we purchased tickets on Weasua Airlines.  I always get concerned when I can’t even pronounce the name of the airlines. Their license would be pulled five years later for safety infractions.

When we arrived the following day to catch our flight, Amos Sawyer, the acting President of Liberia, needed our plane to return from a peace conference in Yamoussooukro, the capital of the Ivory Coast and that we would not be able to fly directly to Abidjan.  Instead, they suggested we fly to Yamousooukro on the plane going to retrieve the President, and then rent a taxi for $30 for the three-hour drive across the Ivory Coast to Abidjan.  That was the only immediate option and we agreed with little thought.  I just wanted to head for home.

Upon arrival in Yamoussoukro, the place was humming with officials, African drummers, bands, young enthusiastic dancers in bright orange and red costumes, and adequate security to dispatch all the presidents of West African countries departing from the peace conference.  When we deplaned, we ran into a significant obstacle.  No one had told us we needed a visa for land travel across the Ivory Coast.  And, we were only getting portions of the bad news in a mixture of French and English.  Finally, we found a bi-lingual Peace Corps worker when we heard him swear in English when all his personal items fell out of his carry-on on the floor in front of everyone.  He agreed to negotiate with officials about the visa and eventually secured a one-day pass for our travel.  Then, when we found a taxi, we were shocked to find out that the taxi was not the estimated $30, but $300.  Such a fee was out of our range of possibility.  Eventually, we booked a bus for the three and a half hour ride to Abidjan for about $25, hoping we could catch our late evening flight.  It was a very bumpy ride on cushion-less seats.  The upside was the blaring Bruce Lee video heavily laced with violence and sexual espionage.

After a one more day delay in Abidjan, we were able to confirm a flight back to New York.  I stopped at the top of steps before entering the plane, and turned my head for one last look at the so-called “dark continent.”  This road warrior was returning exhausted, but unscathed, from the battle.

God Gets Personal!

I recognize that we are whom we are because of a composite of experiences that build one upon the other. Most of those experiences are so subtle that we are unable to identify them or their impact upon our life. However, there are other more pivotal experiences that carry the possibility of initiating a 180-degree shift in what we will do and who we will become. Such shifts occur infrequently, but they are undeniable and usually identifiable.

I can identify small influences that changed my world view, helped me identify what was important and not, taught me right from wrong, led to my understanding of talents and spiritual gifts, and so on and so forth.

We understand why we are the way we are when we retrace our life to identify such transformational moments and how we responded to them. It is like walking backwards with a personal characteristic in hand trying to find the place or moment where we picked it up. Transitional moments can be negative experiences such as the premature loss of a parent driving us into a responsibility for our family that we certainly didn’t want or expect. Or, on the positive side, they can be the special attention given by a teacher that birthed our positive self-concept. Every moment carries the potential for a positive or negative impact upon life, but only a few really make dramatic and immediate changes.

The history of Saul in the book of Acts, chapter 9, illustrates a pivotal moment that radically changed not only his life, but affected the future of the world. You may recall that Paul had been a major figure in the arresting and persecution of Christian in the months immediately after the death of Jesus. One day his attitude and purpose changed radically during a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus where he intended to identify and arrest a group of Christians. While walking with friends, he was blinded by a bright light, reprimanded by Jesus, and instructed to go to Damascus and await further instructions. He remained blind for three days. The experience climaxed with God sending a believer named Ananias to visit Saul. Ananias healed him from blindness and Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a matter of hours, Saul became a promoter and not an opponent of the birth of a new faith. He began to preach immediately his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. These were the first steps toward his becoming the greatest theologian of the New Testament. This personal encounter with God was just one of the millions and millions that would take place over the next two thousand years. I have had several such encounters with the ever-present Holy Spirit. One of which occurred after three years in my first full-time pastorate.

I attended the compulsory annual meeting of West Tennessee Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Savannah in the early months of 1974. These meetings are generally scripted to affirm specific recommendation that have made by the various committees of the Synod and presented to the larger body for a vote. Since most decisions are cut and dried, the meetings appear a waste of time. This was an event I might have considered skipping if I could have found an acceptable excuse.

The highlight of such a business meeting usually took place in the form of “koinonia” (fellowship) over lunch. And, on a good day, participants heard a good sermon or inspiring music.

I settled into my pew for worship hoping we could finish worship and business during the morning, thus allowing me time to rush home for the Vanderbilt basketball game. I had no idea that God had another incredible and unbelievable plan in mind. Rev. Buddy Stott, a missionary to Japan, was the guest speaker for the morning worship service. I had heard of this fellow since he was one of the few missionaries in our denomination and his service was highlighted in denominational publications.

Buddy Stott--Missionary to Japan

Buddy Stott–Missionary to Japan

He appeared a very humble man with little pretense. His small stature, his simple black suit and narrow black tie sent the advance expectation that something conservative was about to occur. His steps to the pulpit were short and measured, marked with an expected missionary piety. I felt that some of the reserve of the Japanese culture had rubbed off on him. But, from the beginning, his quiet gentle demeanor mesmerized me. His sermon was interesting, but not spellbinding, until he began to speak of the commitment of Japanese Christians in the face of persecution. He spoke of incidents when believers were buried up to their necks under the sand of the beach. They were given the opportunity to repent of their faith or await certain death when the tide rose later in the day. He was noticeably touched as he said, “All of those buried were martyred.”

I do not recall him challenging the congregation to give consideration to a career in missions or encouraging the people to make a financial contribution. Truth be known, I had never been interested in missions, nor had I tried to motivate my congregation to strengthen their missions program. So I was surprised he was able to keep my attention. But, in one of the most significant pivotal moments in my brief life, I felt a silent voice calling me to do whatever necessary to become a missionary. It was just that simple. I had no idea what the new revelation implied; it was just there. I was certain. God touched the depth of something within me with this new challenge (problem).

My first response was a period of confusion and reflection. What could this mean? As I tried to sort it out, I became more and more uncomfortable with idea. I was as happy in my work as I could have hoped. Our church membership was growing quantitatively and qualitatively. Mostly, I was happy with the young couples that were not only joining our church, but growing in their commitment to Christ as well. My job was usually fun and exciting. I learned something new everyday. This missionary concern was so unbelievable and unwanted that I couldn’t bring myself to share the experience with my wife. So, I didn’t. On the exterior I moved ahead with life as usual, trying to forget the “feeling” I had in Savannah. Unfortunately, God chose not to be ignored.

In June of 1974, just a few months after my Savannah moment, Virginia and I traveled to the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Virginia followed Rev. John Lovelace into a buffet line for lunch. They chatted as they moved through the line and John said, “You know you and Bob should give some thought and prayer to becoming missionaries. Virginia had thought as a girl about such a possibility, but John’s words penetrated to that deep point where spiritual decisions are considered and made. And, she took notice! But like myself, she remained silent about the unwelcome thought. We didn’t know it, but the lasso thrown around us would only be pulled tighter and tighter over the next few months.

In November we traveled to Iowa to visit my parents and during the return I became overwhelmed with the power of God’s calling upon my life. I said, “Virginia, I need to share a spiritual dilemma I am facing.” She said, “Before you talk about that, let me tell you about a struggle I am facing.” Our sharing of very similar callings united us in a way we had not experienced before. There was no doubt that God had a plan that required the full commitment of both of us. But, we confessed to each other that we really didn’t want to make such a shift in our short-term plan for our life. Our first child had been born in August and it seemed so unreal to consider uprooting our family to go into mission work. Nor, did we have any idea of how to pursue such a calling. The when, where and how to respond to God’s initiative remained unanswered.

So, we put the idea on simmer and didn’t mention the possibility during December or the early days of January. Then, the January edition of our denominational magazine arrived in the mail. I opened to the first page and saw the headline—“The Effort to Recruit a Missionary for Colombia Goes Unanswered.” I was at the church office at the time, so I locked the church and drove home to show the article to Virginia. We immediately decided that this was another sign of God’s call upon our life. We decided that enough was enough. There was no reason to continue to fight against the obvious.

The article indicated that anyone interested in this opportunity should call the Board of Missions. We made the call and the Director of World Missions made an appointment to meet with us the following Wednesday. That meeting resulted in a job offer and three months later we were in San Jose, Costa Rica for a year of Spanish language training.

“Nobody Cares What You Think!”

Visitors didn’t visit our humble church unless they ran out of gas, were visiting one of our members, or were Presbyterians moving to Benton County.  The chances of that happening were about the same as one of our families buying two new cars in the same year–extremely rare.  Benton County, according to postal service statistics, had no more than forty families established residence in the county in a given year. A few others considered moving, even discovered temporary housing, and quickly reneged when they couldn’t find work. Consequently, with the exception of Rev. Saint’s fabulous church, other congregations were shrinking as more people died than were born within their aging congregations.  So I could always spot a new face in our sanctuary with a simple scan from left to right upon entering the pulpit.

However, every rule begs for an exception. One summer Sabbath, a short thin gent took a place about halfway back on the left center aisle seat. He was bald with a long broad nose that allowed his glasses to drift lower and lower as his head shook with a nervous twitch. Finally, he could see me without looking through the thick lens. Fortunately, he didn’t select a pew of any of our regulars, or he might have been asked to politely slide down by a few of our folks that thought their offering on Sunday reserved them a particular seat.  This old feller’s bolo tie, white transparent nylon shirt, and his thread-bear plaid sport coat looked out dated.

The old man looked about 85, bent with a few adventures dating back to memories forgotten. I noticed him stick the writing end of a pen in his mouth to moisten the tip, and then jerk it down with the movement of his eyes as if apparently writing.  I assumed he was jotting down the key points to study the rest of the week; but I should have known better.  No one in the church took notes of the sermon in those days and I frequently wondered how long my carefully written sermons actually influenced any of the attendees beyond the few minutes necessary to deliver them.

The old fellow snuck out of the church without anyone acknowledging his presence.  He was there and then gone similar to a breeze on a hot day.  I surmised he was a member of some pulpit committee from another church. It was not uncommon for churches that were searching for a minister to send a team of “spies,” made up of one to three people, to evaluate a minister’s preaching before formally making overtures of an interest in serious discussions related to a job offer.  They often arrived with no warning and disappeared without a word of explanation, particularly if they were unhappy with what they had seen.

But, the thin visitor came back with an exclamation point. The following Sunday I was at church by 6:30 AM for prayer and study. The time between 6:30 and 10 a.m. on Sunday is unbelievable critical for a minister. It sets the spiritual climate for the entire worship service.  I always like to withdraw from the crowd as much as possible from conflict or confusion to have my wits about me to preach.

At a 10:45 a.m., 15 minutes before worship, the old man knocked on my office door. I rose, opened the door, and he introduced himself as the Rev. Mark Mann, former Jew and now a retired minister of the Christian Church. He dropped a few monumental names from that faith tradition and claimed to be their friends during the years he lived in the Chicago area.  After a very few moments of chatting, he said, “I don’t want to take up a lot of your time now, but I have a few suggestions about your preaching.” He mentioned several things but I remember only two. He said, “Bob, you have the possibility to become a fair preacher and I want to help you with a little refinement.  You mind?” At least he knew how to get my attention with a moment of positive reinforcement. He continued, “You have to quit using the words ‘I think’ so much. People in the congregation don’t really care what you think; or if they do, they are sadly mistaken.  They need to know what the scripture teaches. Be more authoritative! Say, ‘THE Bible says.’”

I was listening, but I was also thinking, “I don’t believe this guy; how do I get rid of him?” His forehead wrinkled and said, “And, you need to become less dependent on your notes.” Thank God, he didn’t know I was preaching from a manuscript or he would have definitely been critical.  Rev. Mann finally left and I collapsed in my chair, rolling my hazel eyes in disbelief and anger.  And, I silently asked, “What did I do, Lord, to deserve this personal curse that arrived out of no where?  Why me? Why our church?”

This little “coaching session” went on every Sunday morning for three weeks, until I came unglued. I was kind to my new uninvited mentor; in fact, I pragmatically appreciated the chance for some constructive feedback. But I was starting to dislike the man for his indiscrete choice of time. On the fourth Sunday, I spoke first when he made his entrance, “Rev. Mann, I appreciate your thoughtful help, but please come in during the week. I get all confused with your comments right before I preach.”  He stuttered, “Well, well, okay,” and left.

Despite his positive response to my request to not “shoot a hole in my preaching sail” on Sunday morning, he did return the next week on Wednesday morning with his pet criticism; he was persistent that I continued to frustrate him with my using “I think.”  Mark insisted, “I am going to break you of this unconscious habit.  Every time you say ‘I think,’ I am going to reach in my shirt pocket, like this, (he demonstrated his new strategy) pull out my pen, hold my little yellow pad in front of my face, and make a mark!”  I faked a grin and nodded my understanding.

He continued, “I guarantee you will see me and it will be so irritating; you will break this habit!”  He proved correct.  He was so intentional and obvious about his movements that not only did I see his actions, others in the congregation began to ask, “What is that ‘old man’ doing with his silly notebook during worship?”

His messing with my brain soon drew a halt to announcing an expression of my opinion; and I began using a methodical exegesis of scripture, complemented with the application of those truths to the life of the congregants.  As I improved my delivery, Rev. Mann became less and less distracting and everyone could focus more on the sermon and less on the little yellow spiral notebook.

A Christmas Gift I Will Never Forget

It’s Thanksgiving, 1975, not our typical day with family because we now live in San Jose, Costa Rica. We moved four months ago and the time has passed ever so slowly, like the months before I got my first driver’s license.  I feel I must nudge the hour hand of the clock to force it to cycle twice and signal another passed day.  Language learning is the worse and most difficult task I have undertaken. My mouth wants to utter a lot of phrases but they are not in Spanish. Living in a foreign land forces me to make comparisons between what was and what is.  The results are depressing.  I hope this changes soon.  Who ever wrote absence makes the heart grow fonder was a self-deluded romantic.  Absence makes the heart grow resentful.  I am more than a bit upset with God for calling us as missionaries to Colombia.  What is He thinking?  We can feel the despair of the present, but have no idea whether the future will get better.

Had our calling to serve not been so certain, I would have thrown in the towel and returned to the USA where they eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, where most people speak English, where people know the meaning of pilgrim, where Thanksgiving signals a hint of winter.   Bah, Humbug, and it isn’t even Christmas eve.

When a husband and a wife fall into the same pit of discouragement at the same time, who will throw down a rope?  This whole experience is a very slippery mountain that tests our faith, determination, and commitment.  It wears down even our resistance to illness.  I am just getting over a bout with pneumonia that stole 30 pounds from my plump body.  Where is our family when we need them?  The truth is they didn’t want us to leave in the first place, so we have to sleep in the bed we created for ourselves.

We are lying in bed after a turkey-less Thanksgiving and I say, “If you think this is bad, can you imagine a Christmas away from family and friends?”  This is our first realization that Christmas will be lonely, very lonely.  And, equally bad, we see or hear none of the normal Christmas signals of late November.  The yeast of the season has lost its reason.

The temperature reads 85 instead of 30. No one peddles Christmas trees in the lot next to Kroger’s or Hy-Vee.  Fisher Price toys for tots are non-existent except through the mail and then you can expect delays and taxation at the customs office. This year our extended family will be easy to visit because there are only three of us within a thousand mile radius, and we all live in the same house.

Of course, we will make new missionary family traditions, but that brings little solace when set side by side with what we will be missing.  I realize for the first time that Christmas involves going to the attic for two kinds of Christmas boxes.  Not only are we unable to pull out the tree bulbs, the stuffed Frosty and Santa (the one that somehow lost one arm years ago), the pine cone wreath that has long since lost a fragrance, and the angel topper.  Neither can we dig through the boxes of experiences past with those people we love most.

Those laments resurfaced daily from Thanksgiving until December 16th, when we got the most unexpected phone call from our wonderful sending church friends—Dr. and Mrs. Anne Bourne from Camden, TN.   They always serve as our sounding board for both the good and the bad, and always call when we need them most.

Anne starts the conversation, “How are things going for you?”

We reply, “We are hanging in here, but there isn’t a lot of joy in Mudville, even though it is nearly Christmas.”

Dr. Bob says, “We have a little present that we are sending your way that might help.”  Visions of a “care package” immediately popped into my head—a fruitcake, a country ham, and some North American toys for David.  “It is scheduled to arrive on December 22 at 6:30 p.m.  But you will need to pick it up.”

I ask, “What do you mean?”

Anne continues, “You will need to go to the San Jose International Airport and wait in the baggage area until you see Bobby and Elizabeth.  We are sending them to brighten your Christmas!”  We are absolutely speechless.  Elizabeth was our son’s #1 baby sitter during his first year of life and almost like a daughter to us.  They were 13 and 15 and their parents are giving them up to spend their Christmas vacation with us.

Elizabeth with David as an infant in Camden.

Elizabeth with David as an infant in Camden.

Such love and sharing still rocks me.  Of course it can’t compare to the God’s gift of Jesus, but it was a real “incarnational” gift that remains one of the most precious of my life.  It definitely modeled in a concrete way the divine love of God by sending His son to dwell among those He loves.  But in a human sense, the gift of two kids for Christmas “saved” us by transforming sadness to joy.  That year, we sang “Joy to the World, some friends have come.”

“Hunter Bunter”–Our Dog that Hunted and Played Baseball

Another of my father’s taraddidles.  He used this one with kids visiting our house or at church.

Bet you would like to hear a story about a very special dog. We have always had a dog or two around the house.  You probably remember Laddie, Happy, Plenty, and Nuttin?  He would raise his eyebrows and say, “You remember what they looked like, don’t you?”  God only knew if they even existed.

One of our dogs while living in Denver.

One of our dogs while living in Denver.

Well, I had another dog long before you started coming around here.  His name was Hunter Bunter.  He was a hunting dog and a ball player.  He just showed up at our house one day—a tall chubby black lab.  Sweetest dog I had ever seen.  When you say smart—that dog was unbelievably brilliant.  He was brighter than some of the kids that get in trouble with the law.

The amazing thing about Hunter Bunter is he knew how to hunt.   I found his skill by pure accident.  One day I decided to go squirrel hunting, grabbed my single shot Remington rifle and piled into the pickup.  The dog was barking and turning in circles, jumping up and down with excitement.  When I opened the pickup door he leaped in without an invitation, as if he really wanted to take a ride.  So, I thought—“Should I throw him out or let him go?”  He was so happy sitting in the truck.  He was smiling real big and I couldn’t bring myself to give him the boot.  So I decided to take him along.

When we got to the timber, he jumped to the ground and took off in a slow trot quickly disappearing.  I thought, “Well, guess he will find his way home.”  And I began to walk quietly listening for the sounds of movement of a squirrel on the ground or in the trees.  Before I could venture too far I heard Hunter Bunter barking loudly in the distance.  The tramp just continued his yap until I figured I should go find him.  When I finally found him, he sat on the ground looking up into a tree.  I walked around the tree looking for his find.  Low and behold, he had treed a squirrel.  I shot him and as soon as it fell to the ground, the dog retrieved it and brought it to me.  I petted and praised the pup.  And he took off again.  Within 15 minutes I heard him barking again.  I spent the morning following my partner.  He did the work and I did the shooting.  Returned home that day with six squirrels.  You couldn’t believe the flavor of those squirrel dumplings.  You ever eaten squirrel dumplings?  Well, you need to have your mom cook some up.  You go right home and tell her I said that.

I’m just getting started with the stories about this dog.  That crazy dog caught me leaving the house one day with my 10-gauge shotgun to go rabbit hunting.  Again, he went bananas trying to get into the old pickup.  He obviously knew I was going hunting, so I took him along.  When we reached the timber, Hunter took off like a maniac.  I just stood around and before long I heard his familiar hunting howl.  I started to walk toward his racket, but the dog was moving, so I waited for him to settle in one place.  The dog was obviously coming closer and closer.  Finally, I saw him in the distance chasing a rabbit toward me.  Eventually, I learned that when I took my rifle the pup would hunt squirrels and when I carried a shotgun, he would hunt for a rabbit.

I began to tell my friends about the unique skill of Hunter Bunter and they would just laugh.  They thought I just liked to spin a tale.

Well, one day I decided to take the kids fishing.  When we came out of the garage with the fishing poles, he took off like the devil was after him, barking as he went toward the family garbage dump and returned with a can in his mouth, ran right by me and ran behind the farm barn.  Before long he began to bark as if trying to call me to what he had found.  I went around the barn and the dog had already filled the can with the fishing worms he had dug in the soft dirt at the edge of the barn.  Yep, that was quite a dog.  Don’t guess I will ever find another one quite like him.

Why I oppose Prayer in Schools!

I was so cool, reared back in my high back vinyl chair, trying to figure out the role of a full-time minister.  Suddenly my study door flew open, and the most God awfully dressed woman burst into my office unannounced.  She belted out, “I’m Rose. My husband, Hank, is one of your elders.  You’ll get to know us real good. Just thought I would stop by and welcome ya.”  Her sculptured face was homely.  She had harsh German features.  Her lips moved but the rest of her face remained fixed. Perched at different levels on her hair and nose were three pairs of glasses—probably the first so-called trifocals ever seen in Tennessee.  Her sunglasses nested on her hair directly behind her graying bangs.  The other two rested on her nose.  Barely catching the tip of her nose were her reading glasses.  Further back on her nose were the glasses she used for general vision that I assumed she removed to read.

I was immediately aware that this woman was either very poor or simply didn’t care a flip about personal appearance.  Her blouse was a short-sleeved brown floral pattern, faded from years of use.  She had saddled up so close to my desk that the part of her skirt I could see reminded me of a faded army jeep.  But the truth is I couldn’t think much about color coordination or fashion.  This woman had some of the biggest bequests that I had ever seen (and I mean seen). The old blouse had obviously lost a few buttons over the years and Rose had failed to replace them.  There I sat, a young minister trying to not do anything stupid during my first week.  Yet these bulges were popping out of the gaps created by pressure on the fabric that couldn’t be constrained by the remaining buttons.  I didn’t know where to look.  If I moved to her face, they were still there.  Glancing down, they still cried, “Up here, young man!”  I began to worry that someone else would come into the office and see this site of the young minister and Rose, blooming for the world to see.

The east side of the Camden square.

The east side of the Camden square.

Actually, she dropped by to ask me to go with her the next evening to the meeting of the Benton County Parent/Teacher Association.  Of course, I agreed.  Did I have a choice?  She promised to pick me up at the manse ten minutes before the meeting.

I was ready, but she arrived late in another unbelievable outfit that was much more modest than the day before.  She drove an old grey Cadillac that looked like a cross between a hearse and a bat-mobile.  We arrived about fifteen minutes late and people packed the lunchroom that doubled for a meeting hall.  The president was already into the business of the evening.  Just as I was thinking about a seat for the two of us, Rose burst to the front of the room and began to wave her arms to get the chairman’s attention.  Now, when Rose spoke everyone listened, like it or not.  So, he paused.  “Rose?”

She turned to the group, smiled ever so slightly and proclaimed, “I want ya’ll to meet my new preacher, Brother Bob Watkins, and he will now lead us in a word of prayer.”  From that moment on, I have been a bit more sympathetic about the movement to exclude prayer from schools.  Our drive home was quiet from my side of the car and I wondered—how many crazy people are there in this church?  Am I really supposed to find a way to influence the spiritual growth of this heard-headed and self-absorbed woman?  Was I totally unkind to say under my breath—”this woman is a certifiable nut?”  No one had told me that such people existed in the church.  But, it didn’t take long for me to learn that my path of greatest peace was to not expect the expected and prepare for a significant surprise at any given moment.  People don’t fit into the little boxes that I had previously built during my sheltered life as a farm boy.