My wife and I decided to take a different route back home last week from my monthly teaching session with the Valley Baptist Missions Education Center. We went from the beautiful Rio Grande Valley of south Texas and drove “up river,” meaning we drove along the Rio Grande River to the northwest rather than due north, through the palm tree lined highway. All was well until we reached Falcon Lake and turned due north toward San Antonio. Pure wilderness! Mile after mile of nothing but flat road, cactus, and mesquite trees, with an occasional road runner crossing the road. For more than one hour, we drove – not a gas station, not a grocery store, not a town, not a house – nothing. I wondered if this is what it was like when the children of Israel crossed the dessert, and became so distressed that they asked, “can God prepare a table in the wilderness” (Psalm 78:19). The answer was of course, He could, and furthermore, He did. Sometimes along life’s journey, the pathway turns into a wilderness road. Life becomes dull, boring, unpleasant, and we begin to wonder what happened to God. Just as that south Texas wilderness road eventually turned into an attractive area with stores, schools, churches, and people, so God visits us in the wildernesses of our lives, and provides “a table.” So next time your road gets long and boring, look for a table. It may just be from God.
I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately. Five of my favorite quotes on family have surfaced:
- “A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold.” — Poet, Ogden Nash,
- “In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.” — German Philosopher. Friedrich Nietzsche.
- “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” — Comedian, George Burns
- “Families are like fudge—mostly sweet with a few nuts.” — Comedian, Les Dawson.
- “Family: like branches on a tree, we all grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one.” – Unknown
Speaking of family, I was looking through some old family pictures recently and found a family Christmas picture from the early 1960s. In the picture were my grandparents, my parents, my aunt and uncle and their two kids (my cousins), my younger brother, and me. Several facts came to me as I studied the picture:
- As of last month’s two deaths, everyone in the picture is deceased except me.
- My family is all in heaven thinking I didn’t make it.
- I’m glad to be the “last man standing.”
- How blessed I was to have such a family.
While it was written about the “family of God” it certainly fits our “family “ when Paul says, “individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5).
Last week brought back memories. My four-year-old great grandson began playing on a soccer team. When I was four years old, soccer was a game played in another country or at least in a far northern state. He also began Pre-K. Again, from my days in Miss Baker’s Little Kindergarten in Paris, Texas, I have only one memory and it is bad. For Halloween, all the students wore masks to school. My mother no doubt found one on sale somewhere, and I wore a pig mask. Something else we’d never heard of back then was bullying, but I experienced it as all the other kids in the class laughed at my pig mask and called me names associated with a pig. Somewhere around that age, my older cousin shot me with his new BB gun. It probably didn’t hurt near as much as I made it out to hurt, but I wanted to get him in trouble, and it worked. He got his gun taken away from him, at least for a while. Even in my last visit with him, before his death last week, he reminded me of how much I cried as I ran to tell his Daddy. I remember Barney, the mule who pulled the Ice Cream Wagon and how I would run to the end of the block and ride the wagon to my house. Barney never seemed to mind the extra passenger. Speaking of riding, I remember riding on the fire truck in the Vacation Bible School parade, and being told to, “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1) but I’m not sure I knew where Ecclesiastes was located. Whether they bring back positive or negative feelings, memory is one of God’s greatest gifts.
During the past month I have lost two cousins. On the same day we were burying one, the second one died. It caused me to look for my favorite quotes on cousins, some of which I would like to share:
- “Cousins are childhood playmates who grow up to be forever friends.” – Unknown
- “Cousin to cousin we’ll always be, special friends from the same family tree.” – Anonymous author but given to me on a chair pillow by my late cousin, Dr. Vicki Gilliam.
- From my late cousin, Dr. Larry Gilliam to his future wife as he worked in his father’s grocery store, and she asked if he was going to check her out (meaning at the check-out counter). “I’ve been checking you out for the last thirty minutes.”
- “Cousins are those rare people who ask how we are and then wait to hear the answer.” – Ed Cunningham, American Sports Announcer
- “A real cousin walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” – Proverb
- “A cousin is someone whose smile helps when the roads are rough and long.” – Unknown
- “A cousin is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost.” – Marion C. Garretty, American Poet
- “Cousins are like celebrities for little kids. If little kids had a People magazine, cousins would be on the cover. Cousins are the barometers of how fun a family get-together will be.”- Jim Gaffigan, American Comedian
- “At Christmas, cousins are the presents under the tree.” – Karen Decourcey
- ”Mark, the cousinof Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him)” – Colossians 4:10
I always wished for a sister, even when my mother was pregnant with my younger brother. I had a wonderful name selected, but Madeline, became Bob, and the wish was over. But I had Vicki, a female cousin, with whom I was especially close, from our days as teammates in all the family football games to her many years as the Secretary/Treasurer to my Presidency of Disciple All Nations, Inc. Last week, I officiated at her graveside funeral service. Like the fighter she was, she beat cancer, then fought a long, courageous battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. As the Apostle Paul was writing his final letter, realizing that his days were quickly passing, he wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). He could have written that about Vicki. A couple of weeks ago, I received an updated text from Vicki. After sharing the most recent evaluation from the doctors, she wrote, “I’ve been fighting this disease for almost 2 years, but it’s time to stop fighting, and let nature take its course, unless God decides to intervene.” She “fought the good fight.” Furthermore, she “finished the race.” We wished for more, but she lived a full life. Many have lived less. As she put it, “So, it appears God has chosen to heal me in heaven, rather than healing me on earth.” Vicki “kept the faith.” In my last long visit with her, two days before she died, we talked about end-of-life things, funeral plans, burial plans, then she surprised me. “I want you to do one more thing for me” she said, “Tell me everything you tell others that you know about heaven.” A deeply committed believer, her request was not an admission of lack of faith. It was an affirmation that she believed everything I said. She “kept the faith.” Vicki will be missed. She was the sister I never had, and now, no longer have.
Be very careful which funeral home you use when a family member dies. My cousin had a burial insurance policy that was purchased in another town but was guaranteed to be acceptable at any funeral home. Upon her death we had her body transferred from the Hospice Hospital to a nearby funeral home. When we sat down last week to settle the funeral plans, we were told, the funeral home where her body was, did not accept the pre-burial policy prices and in addition to that money, they needed $10,000 more from us … immediately. We asked how much we owed thus far for the transport from the Hospice Hospital to the funeral home and were told $795. I gave them my credit card and we walked out. Then we negotiated with another funeral home for no charges in addition to the burial policy. They actually gave us a refund for services covered in the policy but were unused. Two funeral homes. One attempting to take advantage of grief; the other legit and caring. $10,000 difference in charges. Be careful which funeral home you choose. “He who walks with integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will become known” (Proverbs 10:9).
In my early years, I used to spend Sunday afternoons with my Grandfather at the Katy Depot in Waco, Texas. In those days, there would be twelve to fifteen passenger trains passing through on a Sunday afternoon and my Grandfather and I would watch every one of them. There was an interesting thing that I had forgotten until I read about it a few days ago – “Railroad Chapels.” The first railroad chapel was built in 1890 by the Episcopal Church and was quickly followed by similar initiatives from different denominations. Soon there were railroad chapels traveling across America on trains to provide church services to rural believers. The popularity of railroad chapels started to fade after World War II, and by the 1970s, when automobiles overtook trains as the mode of transportation in America, they were dismissed. But it tells me that the people of God have always done whatever was needed to share their faith with all people – in this case, rural citizens without access to a church. I’m sure people back then thought these believers were “fanatics” just as some do today with our modern methods of outreach. But we are only following the instructions of our Lord who said to His disciples, then and now, that as we go about, we are to “make disciples of all the nations, (literally all the ethnic groups).”
There is a current TV commercial that fills me with mixed emotions. Dad is on his cell phone. Daughter is busy, but suddenly has a question that won’t wait. “Dad,” she interrupts, “How big is the ocean?” Dad pauses momentarily and then says into the phone, “Can I call you back?’ Next scene is Dad and daughter riding in the car toward the ocean. “Are you ready?” Dad asks. Then they are standing on the shore gazing at the vastness of the ocean. Every time I see this commercial, I reflect on the joy of a father (or grandfather) showing his child (or grandchild) something for the first time. But then, as soon as I remember the joy of newness, I remember the times I was too busy, times I stayed on the phone and ignored the question, or stayed at the office, or stayed on the road. Moments of joy lost, never to be re-lived. Finally, I am reminded of God’s promise, first stated in Isaiah 64:4 then quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” Someday, all of our questions will be answered by a loving Father, who, although quite busy, makes time for us.
This coming fall, I will be teaching again at Southwestern Baptist Seminary. I will teach the course, “Prayer and Global Ministry” that has not been taught at Southwestern during the sixteen years of my retirement. This time it will be an online course through technology with which I am unfamiliar. In four days last week, I filmed 23 segments, sixteen of which were in a Studio, teaching into a camera, hoping there were students on the other end and that they did not choose to go to the Grocery Store while I was teaching. Now I’m trying to learn how to use the class internet program – Canvas. High tech seminary students will register for the course and many others will sign up to audit the class. Hopefully, they will think that I know what I am doing. Fortunately, I have a Teaching Assistant assigned to me and he knows what I am doing. All of this reminds me of the question of Ecclesiastes, “Why were the former days better than these?” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) and the song of Moses, “Remember the days of old” (Deut. 32:7). I am a low tech professor in a high tech world.
Last week I attended a meeting of approximately two thousand Baptists. In the meeting area, participants were mostly of one mind, with a few exceptions. In the Exhibit Area, not so much of one mind. That’s one reason I spend so much time in the Exhibit Area. Partly because we allow each church to be autonomous, we are nearly always a divided bunch. In the Exhibit Area we have booths representing every group of Baptists. Kind of like heaven? Well, that might be a bit of a stretch. More like a family reunion, complete with those we love, and those we love but don’t particularly like, and as always, the crazy Uncle. In the Exhibit Area I found friends, colleagues, and former students; persons with whom I agree and those with whom I disagree. But for a couple of days, we were family, and I loved it. Because I have friendship connections across all group lines, I am either a friend in all camps or an enemy in all camps, and I don’t really care anymore. Some people hate to attend conventions. I love them – because I spend a lot of time in the Exhibit Area. “So, we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5).