Hinkley, El Campo, Oakville…

We're all from there.

 

A little over a week ago a dear friend and mentor made a permanent change of address. Dr. Stan Toussaint left this world behind to move into his new digs in heaven. He had packed his bags awhile back, and, at 89 was ready to go. His body had just worn out.

Recent strokes had robbed him of his ability to speak. Polio as a child had stolen  his love of running and jumping. But I never heard a word of complaint in the 40 years I knew him at DTS.

Dr. Chuck Swindoll offered the eulogy last Saturday. He met Dr. Toussaint back in 1960 when he was a student at Dallas Seminary. Dr. Toussaint was struggling to climb some steps leading up to Mosher Library. Chuck was at the top of the steps and reached out with a helping hand. Dr. Toussaint grasped Chuck’s hand as if he were reaching for a handshake greeting: “Hi,” he said. “I’m Stan Toussaint, and I’m from Hinkley, Minnesota!”

That story created a ripple of laughter last Saturday. Because we all knew Dr. Toussaint delighted in telling stories about his upbringing in remote Hinkley. I take it by faith that it’s a real place.

Hinkley has achieved a mythical status in my life. Sort of like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. It’s a place you long for, but at the same time want to stay shrouded in the mists, just over the next hill. Beyond GPS.

Chuck is from El Campo. Another fairly small town, down south of Houston. His early days were spent there, soaking up the culture of small-town life. You can hear it in his preaching. He weaves together stories of biblical characters who bear an uncanny resemblance to the denizens of El Campo. You don’t plant yourself in a place like Hinkley or El Campo as much as those places plant themselves in you – take root in your life. And the fruit of that plant comes out in the form of barbecue-flavored memories and a wagonload of “mirror” stories – the kind where you see yourself reflected in the tale.

Hinkley. El Campo. Oakville. Or, come to think of it – Bethlehem. Another small town that few knew or cared about at the time. But sometimes really good folks come from nowhere towns. They shake things up. Sometimes they save the world.

When I was a younger man and out to impress folks, and they asked where I was from, I would always say, “George West.” Because, you know it was a bit more cosmopolitan. At 2,250, the burgeoning population of George West was ten times the population of my actual hometown of Oakville, twelve miles and three dead armadillos to the northeast. Anywhere was bigger than Oakville.

But now I say, “Hi, I’m Reg Grant. I’m from Oakville, Texas.” I always get the quizzical look, the tilt of the head. I usually follow up with, “If you’ve ever headed south on 37 out of San Antone, on your way to Corpus, you passed through Oakville about 80 miles down the road. Blink and miss it. You ought to stop at Van’s BBQ,” I say. “You might run into Bookie or some of my other Reagan cousins, getting breakfast. Say hi to Marty (she may not be a cousin, but she’s still family) – she’ll be the one in the red chili pepper hat.” ––  “Hi honey, what can I get you?” Tell her, “Reg says, ‘Hey, and I’ll be back for a Country Breakfast before long.'”

Dr. Toussaint and Chuck remind me to take pride in my small town roots. So I say I’m from Oakville. Because that’s where we’re all from. Or want to be.

Every big town started out small. And, Lord willing, that’s where we’re headed, someday. After we’re done shaking things up – and telling folks about the the small town Boy who grew up to save the world.

Hinkley. El Campo. Oakville.

Where life is slow as the Nueces, and the folks are as satisfying as bacon and biscuits at Van’s.

Transitions

A Cold Tub, a Splash in the Eye, and a Sweet Prayer

I’m recovering from a bout of the sads. Sad that I had a nasty outbreak of poison ivy. Sad that, on top of the poison ivy, I got an equally invidious cold that I couldn’t shake for over a week. Okay, maybe “sad” isn’t the best word. “Irritated” might fit the bill better.

Still, I felt like circumstances were piling on a bit and they added up to a bit of sadness, a sense of loss. The week before, Rosalyn had gotten engaged to John.  That’s a cause for real celebration in our family; however, there is a tinge of sadness that accompanies this transition. Ollie (my nickname for Rosalyn)  is  currently living in a house that’s only 10 minutes from our front door. And on the way into work.

I get to see her, visit with her, give her hugs, pray with her on a very regular basis. The sadness comes in that she and John just bought a house that is 30 minutes in the opposite direction. Bottom line: I’m going to be seeing her less. She’s one of the three most important people in my life.

Of course, that also means that Evan is going to be living 30 minutes in the opposite direction as well.  No more stopping by first thing in the morning to wake him, to pray with him, to sing with him, or to read him a story. I tell myself, “he’s only 30 minutes away.” It feels like the moon.

So, I have been treasuring our times together. Last night, for example, we were “swimming” together in our hot tub. The heater is out, which means the hot tub is now a cold tub, and a perfect mini swimming pool for Evan and PoP!

We were splashing around, and I got something in my eye.  As I rubbed my eye, I caught a glimpse of Evan looking at me with concern. And then, without my prompting, he bowed his head and said, “Dear God, please help my PoP!’s eye to feel better.” Then he looked up at me and said, “does it feel better?”

I assured him that his prayer made me feel better. It was the first time I had seen Evan pray voluntarily.

Again, as is so often the case, I find myself surprised by the kindness of the Lord. There I was,  selfishly concerned about Evan’s gradual physical transition away from me. And here comes the Lord, with  a reminder that a different kind of  transition is taking place in Evan’s life at the same time. The Lord is drawing Evan closer to Himself.

The sadness doesn’t go away. But I am reminded with His comforting grace that even if I am not there for Evan, the Lord will be.

That’s a transition I can live with.

August in Dallas

It Can Surprise You

Anything can happen. I really believe that. I’m up for exceptions to just about any rule—except for three things: death, taxes, and August in Texas.

You can count on needing to find shade. Where you eat some Bluebell Homemade Vanilla and watermelon. Then run through the sprinkler.

August is when you change your mind about going out to the The Globe to watch the Rangers make a run for the second wildcard—even though they are giving away a really cool Texas Rangers Alarm Clock to the first 10,000 fans crazy enough to brave the scorching, 100º  afternoon game (bring your own dogs, cook ‘em on the seats).

August. The most miserable, the most predictable month on the calendar. There just isn’t much surprising about August.

Unless you’re in love.

That changes everything.

Last weekend, John asked Lauren and me to come down to the (sweltering) Dallas Arboretum to record his “surprise” proposal to our sweet Rosalyn. Lauren and I got there a bit early, hid at the end of what we call “Frog Alley,” and waited. I had my camera and was fully prepared to snap a great shot—but I failed to allow for one thing: it’s “dollar-month” at the Arboretum. So Frog Alley was absolutely packed with dollar-day patrons. As you can see below from the one semi-decent photo I took of the actual proposal, a couple decided to stop and watch.

Right. In. Front. Of. Me.

Thankfully, they also recorded the event and sent Ollie and John the pics they had taken with their iPhone.

Still…

It doesn’t matter if it’s 110º in the shade—if it’s dollar-day at the Arboretum, by gum, Dallas is there!

We haven’ t seen Rosalyn that happy in a long time. It was as if she finally could surrender her heart to a man who loves her with all of his.

And surprised?! Nope. Not for a minute. Ollie had it all figured out. There were too many “tells” along the way that added up to “today’s the day.” She was so confident that John was up to something, that on their drive to the Arboretum, she texted her best friend, Elizabeth, to let her know she thought John was about to pop the question!

We were so proud of ourselves, thinking we had taken every precaution.

And we were the ones who were surprised!

There isn’t much that’s as predictable as August in Texas.  Of course, I should have seen this coming. Because when we think we’ve got things pretty well figured out, that’s when the Lord delights in surprising us.

Oh, and today they bought their dream house.

So, I turn on the Weather Channel—could be a norther headed this way.

Because it’s August. And anything can happen.

Surprising Rest Part 2

The Blessing of the Overflowing Cup

The last time out, I said I would reveal the second surprise the Lord had in store for us.

As a reminder, the first delight was our visit to Clingman’s Dome where Lauren and I had watched the sunrise over the Great Smokies 43 years ago.

The second surprise caught me even more off guard, and I found myself “drinking out of the saucer.”

Back in 1974 – the same year we visited Clingman’s Dome – I was acting in Unto These Hills, the regional play written by Kermit Hunter. The theater is situated in Cherokee, North Carolina. On our recent vacation to Jillian’s Cabin, we were nearest Whittier, N.C.

Cherokee was 5 miles up highway 19!

Unto These Hills was in the middle of its summer run. The production had just returned to the original version of the play, after having abandoned it for other adaptations that didn’t work as well as Kermit’s original script – which I had acted in 43 years ago!

I took my family (Evan’s favorite part was the Eagle Dance — see the pic above), and we met Dustin Wolfe, who did a fine job playing John Ross (the part I had played back in 1974), along with several of the other cast members: Addison Debter, (a great Will Thomas), Lori Sanders who pretty much reincarnated the late and wonderful Martha Nell Hardy as Mrs. Perkins (that voice!), and Kaki Clements who will break your heart as Wilani.

The set had undergone major improvements since my day. I’ll always remember standing stage right, high on a rocky outcropping back on August 8, 1974. We were in the middle of a short scene when they stopped the show with the following:

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please.
President Richard Nixon has just announced his resignation
from the office of President of the United States. Thank you.”

I wish I could remember who had the next line, following a stunned pause, but it’s a blur. I’m sure that, given the nature of the scene, it had something to do with the need for Andrew Jackson’s government in Washington to keep its word and help the Cherokee Nation – President Jackson had been duplicitous, so say the least, though I’m sure he insisted that he was not a crook.

Hmm.

And then there was the title of the play: Unto These Hills is an allusion to the first line of Psalm 121.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
 My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. (KJV)

The Lord is the one in Whom we place our trust. Neither the Cherokee, nor we, dare place our trust in any, save the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the God of the individual pilgrim as much as He is the God of His people. He has promised never to leave us, never to forsake us (Hebrews 13:5)

And…

He will always surprise us with His grace.

When we least expect it.

When our cup is already running over.

And we are drinking out of the saucer.

Surprising Rest

God delights in blessing us when we least expect it...

Last time we talked about Thanksgiving in July.

This week we’re talking Christmas! It’s my favorite time of year, mainly because I love trying to sneak up on my family with a surprise that will generate joy and laughter.

Lauren and I decided awhile back that material gifts should form a small part of our giving at Christmas or any other time of year. We would rather invest in making memories together in special places than in buying another bauble that will wind up in someone’s garage sale.

We can’t afford the big trips very often – once every couple of years fits our budget fairly well. And we make it count.

North Carolina reminded me that you can’t box up sweet memories like so many truffles. They will not grow cobwebby. They will never get shoved up in the attic alongside Nick’s old ninja swords. Memories – the really good ones – last!

So we all flew to Jillian’s Cabin on the Tuckasegee and it was perfect. There wasn’t one square inch of memory space that we didn’t cram with laughter, and singing, and joy.

And yet…

That wasn’t enough to satisfy the Lord. He granted me two really special surprises. I’ll tell you one this time around, and then fill you in on the other one in a week or two.

We hiked up to Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest Rangers’ lookout in the Smoky Mountains. Absolutely stunning views! I was there 43 years ago with my sweetheart, Lauren. We were engaged at the time, and we hiked up to the Dome before dawn.

It wasn’t the beautifully smooth path that welcomes visitors today, but a rough walk through a good bit of forest – in pitch darkness! The station had been abandoned for a while and we had to jump up to a ladder that hung off the observation deck and climb up together.

It was worth it.

Back in 74, we watched the world being created to the east with slow “smoke” rising from the dense forest. Glitter spangled the velvet-black sky to the west until the slow dawn swallowed up all the stars.

I don’t remember much of our conversation, but one thing I recall vividly:

“Someday,” I said, “we are going to bring our children here.”

Not only did we bring our three grown kids, but I was able to bring my grandson, Evan, as well!

As an extra added blessing – this was the surprise – it was the one day of the year when the Great Smokies National Park commissioned a photographer to take free portraits of families on the Dome! So, we were able to get a large-format photograph taken by a professional photographer (“Vincent” – great name for an artist with a camera) in the very spot where Lauren and I were sitting 43 years before, promising to bring our family there one day!

I stood alone for a moment after the picture, and I felt His pleasure. His delight in blessing us.

Sneak up on someone you love today. Surprise that special person with a blessing.

And wish them a Merry Christmas!

Thanksgiving in July

Leaves on the Tuckasegee

I’m sitting out on a screened-in porch near Cherokee, North Carolina, enjoying a mid-morning cup o’ Joe. Every couple of years we take a family vacation – Rosalyn, Evan, Gabe, Nick, Lauren and I.

Lauren plans the whole excursion – she finds the place, and works out all the possible fun things we can do together. This year, we had a dear friend, Jillian, offer us her beautiful cabin here on the Tuckasegee River.

Nick is reading in the hammock, Gabe is reading on the long couch, Evan is playing with his trucks, Lauren is in the living room reading her McCullough novel, 1776. Now, Ollie (Ros) is reading a Bernstein Bears book to Evan (he dropped his truck at the promise of a book). Hmm – seems to be a pattern here.

I am one thankful PoP! Give me my family and I could be in Dallas, or Dubai, or here in Tarheel Country. Heaven, it turns out, is portable. Who knew?

Early birds serenade us.

Leaves, newly detached, cascade lazily from the trees in the early morning light to land silently, inauspiciously on the river.

The river – always there, always changing – transports those leafy frigates and barky barges on a lazy green ribbon threading its course through the banked trees, headed west-ish to tie in with the Oconaluftee and then on to join the mighty Mississippi.

But ultimately, place doesn’t matter. Family matters. And, when it comes to thanksgiving, the calendar is also irrelevant. We don’t need to wait until the end of November to express a thankful heart. Many of us have blessings in abundance in the people we love and who love us back every day of the year.

But even if you haven’t been blessed with a loving family, there is still cause for thanksgiving. The same God who made the Tuckasegee and every leaf that cruises along its surface, made you as well.

And – even more amazing – He loves us. All of the many millions and billions of us. He loves each of us as if we were his only child. Despite our raggedy character and our splintered families, and the multitude of wounds we all bear. Still, He loves us and waits patiently for us to fall into his arms – For God so loved the world.,. (John 3:16).

But unlike the leaf that has no will, you need to decide to detach yourself from the branch that holds you, tethers you to the great tree that is world-rooted and holds all the leaves that have ever been and that ever will be.

From the time you budded, you think the world tree is all there is and you are grateful for the life the tree has provided. Then, a heavenly breeze turns you to consider the river and a longing fills your heart. By faith, you sever that bond, you die – and by God’s grace, you are reborn in the great river.

So give thanks daily – for where you have come from. For where you are going. For the One who loves you and waits for you at the end of the river.

Taking Time to Love

You can't rush the good stuff...

I’m sitting out on a deck near Suquamish, Washington, a few miles northwest of Seattle.

It’s 5:50 a.m., and a grey squirrel is chattering at me. You can see a sailboat cutting across the cloud-mirrored lake.

The sunrise washes everything in a fresh light that slowly wakens the forest around us. There are so many birds singing and chirping, I’ve stopped counting because, at 15, they started to overlap and blend.

It’s July 10. I just checked my weather app — It will reach 93 degrees this afternoon in Garland, where we live.

Here in the Suquamish forest — it may hit 68 by 5:00 p.m.

This is our time to breathe after a time of ministry, for which we had been preparing for several months. Lauren and I try to schedule a time to relax following a major ministry “push.”  It refreshes us, and reminds us of our need for the Lord. We can’t do this on our own.

Plus, it’s beautiful. And symphonic (those birds!). And it provides time to reflect.

I was performing some of my characters on this just-completed tour. One of them, the Apostle Paul, comments on his immediate post-conversion experience: “I had so much to learn. And I did. But learning isn’t wisdom. Wisdom takes time.”

We can’t rush the things that are important. There’s no shortcut to wisdom. Wisdom requires trial and error. Success and failure.

The good news is, wisdom requires no talent at all. Anyone can acquire wisdom (James 1:5). But it isn’t automatic. Wisdom requires discipline — twin disciplines, in fact. We must fear the Lord, and we must obey Him.

Oh yes – and we need to keep doing it.

That’s where most of us come off the rails. Not that we don’t make an attempt. We do — but it’s the blasted inconsistency of our daily walk. The frustrating regularity of our failures. The halting, incremental growth of fruit on our spiritual vine, which denies us the adrenal rush we crave.

And we want to give up the quest for something more immediately satisfying – like our favorite TV show!

But the essence of faithfulness is sticking with it — trusting that God’s timetable for our growth is not measured in days or weeks, or even in years. It’s measured in decades. Do a little character study of some of the great ones listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. Not one of them enjoyed a meteoric rise to spiritual maturity.

Like the forest around me, it takes a long time to grow a beautiful life.

When you’ve stuck with it for a while, something unexpected happens — you start developing a love for God and for your neighbor that goes deeper than pleasure and that doesn’t rely on circumstance. It begins to take on the character of the One who loves.

There’s a whiff of unconditionality about it.

And that takes time.

Wherever you are, you have all the time there is. It just depends on how you invest it.

Did I mention that there’s no TV here?

Brevity

Living Between the Frames

 

Top Hat is one of my favorite Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. The heavenly elegance of their dance, the fluid, dancing-on-air genius of these two artists was captured for us on 35mm film back in 1935. Well, most of their dancing was captured. Not all of it.

Film is shot at 24 frames per second (fps). That means you see 24 discrete images every second when you’re looking at Top Hat or most other films. What you aren’t consciously seeing is the 24 tiny seams between those images. Our minds simply fill in the small gaps to make the motion appear to be seamless. 24 fps may appear to correspond to reality, but, at a running time of 101 minutes (like Top Hat), your eye is actually stitching together roughly 145,440 discrete frames.

Each frame is illuminated with a small burst of light lasting for around 40 milliseconds. When the frame rate of a movie is too low (think of the old silent movies that were shot at 18 fps), your mind will no longer see the movie as fluid. It will appear to jump.

Researchers recently discovered how many light flashes per second the human brain can discern as separate before they look like a steady beam. It turns out that life as we see it day-to-day is a movie running at around 60 frames per second.

Wow! Don’t blink.

But even when viewing a film shot at 24 fps, we miss a lot and forget even more. After three days we will retain about 65% of the visual content of a film, and far less of what we hear. Even at 24 frames per second, which is a little less that 1/2 the 60 fps that are zipping by us in daily life, we fail to register what is actually going on.

In fact, we don’t even have to try to ignore the spaces between the frames in a film or in life. It’s automatic – not to mention, it’s easier to keep up appearances that way.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. – Ferris Bueller

Ferris is right. Too much of my life is a blur. But there’s a lot of life lived out between the frames – in those private interstices where nobody sees except God. It’s in those imperceptible interruptions to our life film where character is truly formed rather than in the brightly illuminated frames that the public sees. That’s where character comes to light.

God puts a high priority on the brief space between the frames. Matthew 6:4 tells us that our giving and our praying should be in secret. Why? Because God, whom we cannot see, resides there, between the frames. And He sees.

Absolutely nothing escapes His penetrating gaze. Good or bad. No matter how brief.

Over the course of our life, let’s make it a goal to pay attention to the quality of life lived in the space between the frames. It will make heaven that much more special.

And speaking of heaven…

 

 

 

Some Days…

Are Better than Others

 

Some days you wake up and you’re at the ranch. You poke your head into Evan’s room and he’s already looking out the window toward the rising sun. “PoP! PoP! We’re at the ranch!”

Some days you have to decide what to do first – go hunt for arrowheads on Arrowhead Hill, go for a ride in the Old Gray Jeep, go for a ride in the Beef (our 1976 Chevy with 40,000 original miles, no AC, no radio, barely a clutch), go up to the ruins of the Lasater House and look down the rock well to see if we can see the bottom this time. Or we could walk down to the CCC (Colorful Christian Clubhouse) to explore the big crack in the floor and jump up and down on the rusty scale that makes the coolest screeching noise.

Some days you have big decisions about food. We might go into Three Rivers to visit the “Chinese Food & Donuts” bakery for breakfast.  Later on we’ll make a run to Dairy Queen for Blizzards and a Peanut Buster Parfait which PoP! will share with Mommy, as he has since she was Evan’s age.

Some days, chores await! So we climb onto the tractor and do a little mowing or just ride around making all kinds of noises. Or we go find a hammer and find something that needs hammering. Like a big sheet of rusty tin.

Some days, the river calls us and we climb up Treebeard toward PoP’s! old treehouse.

Then we sit by the river and throw sticks into the slow current, and look for alligators and dinosaurs.

Stories follow. PoP! starts them, and Evan serves as script doctor, adding his own storylines.

Some days we go down to the Oakville Town Square where we find an old truck and go for a joy ride to the moon and back.

Some days are good.

Some days are better.

And some days, I get to be with Evan on the ranch.

 

Jonah & the Inside Passage…

Learning Real Forgiveness from a Reluctant Prophet

 

I’m getting ready for Alaska.

Dr. Chuck Swindoll and Insight for Living (IFL) have invited me to perform a few characters during the upcoming IFL cruise to Alaska. We’ll be taking the Inside Passage.

The Lord has a way of poking at me through my characters. Maybe you’ve experienced that during your own Bible study. It seems that, whatever character I’m performing (Jonah, in this case), something in that man’s life resonates with issues in my own life. Maybe that’s one reason the Lord chose to record particular experiences in the Bible — the universality of our struggles bind us in a common experience, despite being separated from those characters by thousands of years. We all find ourselves in the same boat, so to speak.

Jonah’s issue was one of forgiveness. He had trouble forgiving his enemies. And, make no mistake, his enemies were real. The Assyrians were the terrorists — the Islamic State  — of his day, and they threatened Israel with their barbaric acts of torture, and their mockery of Israel’s God. The Assyrians habitually flayed their enemies alive, chopped off heads and stacked them in towering mounds, and tore young children from their mothers’ arms, then burned them alive in front of them. To my way of thinking, Jonah had a case.

In the beginning of the story, the Lord sends Jonah to announce judgement against the inhabitants of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, because of their wickedness.  Jonah takes off in the opposite direction toward Tarshish. But God uses a fish to redirect his steps, and he winds up going to Nineveh — albeit reluctantly — with a message of God’s impending judgement: “At the end of 40 days, Nineveh will be overthrown.”  As far as we know, that was the whole sermon. No call to repentance. No hint of possible forgiveness. Just judgement.

And yet…

The Ninevites repented. Weeping. Sackcloth (they even draped their animals in sackcloth)! And, to Jonah’s consternation, God spared them.

The Lord taught Jonah an important lesson. Jonah knew intellectually that the Lord was “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy,” (Jonah 4:2). In fact, that’s the main reason given for his attempted escape to Tarshish. He shuddered at the thought of those hated Assyrians — those terrorists — being spared God’s judgement. It was a far cry from the vengeance Jonah was hoping for. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t the payback they deserved.

But it was grace.

It was God’s gift to the terrorists, once they repented.

You don’t get to real/heart forgiveness by traveling the road of judgement.

Real forgiveness is a journey up the Inside Passage of the heart. Because the Lord doesn’t just want us to forgive our enemies (include the virtual terrorists in your own family who plot to hurt you and your loved ones).

He wants us to love them. Just as he loves us, and loved us — while we were still His enemies (Romans 5:8, 10).

Ask the Lord today to transform your heart. To help you love and forgive your enemies — including the terrorists — from your heart.