Burning Bush or Fever Dream?

From to time to time I mention my faith - my belief in the Triune God, my confidence in The Bible, the sense of purpose and fulfillment that I get from participating and worshiping at church. I mention my struggles as well - the doubt we all have, my distrust of man-made institutions, the conflicts between the spiritual and the secular. There is, however, one "faith thing" that I rarely mention, and will go out of my way to avoid. What's interesting about this "thing" is that it is, simultaneously, the source of my greatest confidence and also my greatest doubt. This "thing" is when I encounter God.

That phrase alone, "I encounter God," will have some readers saying "Amen!" and others saying "Oh brother." That, right there, is the reason I avoid talking about this "thing." Either response bothers me, and doesn't seem right. "You've encountered God? Hallelujah! Prophesy!" or "You've encountered God? Holy crap! Pharmacy!" The feeling that I've received some sort of message from God gives me the impression of being close to God, close to some sort of understanding. The idea that God is intentionally communicating with me, directly, well, it makes me think I might be crazy. The emotion makes me confident; the logic makes me doubt.

I am fascinated by other people's stories about messages from God. Are they similar to mine? How did they know? What was their response? What do they make of it and what did they do with it? Very often the stories are overly dramatic or very specific, and I immediately question the veracity; it's like an embellisher adding too many details, too much gilding on the story. Sometimes the story is told wistfully, like they cannot provide details but have a distinct, memorable impression, and these I tend to accept, or at least they help me believe in the sincerity of the teller, because it seems like something God would do ... guide or suggest but not force or command you. I do not know how God works in this world, but here are three of these "things" for the record. Make of them what you will.

On the Course:

Not long after joining Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church, I was sitting in the pew, thinking more about my afternoon plans than the message being delivered. Immediately after church I was going to rush home, grab my clubs, and head to the golf course to meet up with 6 or 7 friends. The sermon was on baptism, a topic I typically tuned out for a variety of reasons. At some point I heard the preacher ask 'What would it take for you to believe?' to which I mentally added 'AND be baptized!' In answer to the preacher's question I thought, 'If I break 80 this afternoon, they can baptize me in the 18th hole water hazard!'

Later, as we finished the 4th hole, my playing partner Rob said, "Dude. You're even after 4. You're on fire!" To be honest, after stringing together a handful of good shots, some might even say miraculous for me, on the very first hole I began to worry about my sarcastic promise to God. My previous best score ever was 89, on an easy course when playing regularly. I was a consistent mid-90's player, but could easily shoot 100+ without some breaks along the way. I told Rob, "I'm not on fire, I'm out of my mind. I'll tell you about it later." At the turn Rob asked if I wanted know my score and if I was okay because I was being so quiet. I didn't want to jinx anything so I just said again that I would talk to him about it later and no, I didn't want to know my score. But he looked at me and held up 3 fingers, which I took to mean that I was halfway home with a 39, 3 strokes above par.

I don't even remember playing the back nine. It was surreal. I was consistently landing approach shots within a putt-able range, or if I was farther out I always seemed to have an easy line. On the 18th tee Rob tells me, "I know you said not to tell you, but you need a par for 80." Thanks a lot, Rob. Off the tee I'm in trouble on the left, in the woods, though I typically slice. No choice but to punch it out. I'm 120 yards out, normally an 8 iron for me, but I'm hitting the short irons so well I decide on a wedge. If I put it close enough for a make-able putt, I have my par and my 80. I'm vibrating so much as I stand over the ball that I have to back off more than once. Finally, as I'm adjusting my stance and grip for the hundredth time, I feel a wave of calm that starts at my head and flows down to my feet. There is also this thought, this question, in no specific words which was, "Does it really matter?"

I hit the shot. It takes one hop and sits, above the hole, on the flat, maybe 3 feet away. Easy. I mark my ball and allow everyone else to putt out, all the while asking myself "does it really matter?" I can't decide what the "it" is. Is it the score, or is it the baptism? Is it the flippant promise I made to God, or this bizarre round of golf? As soon as the ball left my putter I knew. I had yanked it left, missing by a few inches. I tapped it in for bogey and an 81. It didn't bother me, because the calm had never left me, and I knew that regardless of my score, it didn't really matter.

I met Rob at his house that day so as we drove back I told him about "the thing." He knew what a thoroughly below average golfer I was. He had seen me spooked and shaky for most of the round. As I tried to explain and verbalize and remember everything that had transpired, Rob just listened and finally said, "When God talks, you should listen." By the time I drove from Rob's house to mine, the doubt and logic had already begun to creep in and I've never come close to 80 since.

Listening for the Call:

Several years later I was on the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) at Bentwood Trail. We had been meeting every week for a long time, trying to find the right person to be called to lead our church. We had gotten to the point of bringing candidates to town, to hear them preach at a neutral pulpit, meaning some other church. This particular week the PNC was to hear a candidate preach at Faithbridge Presbyterian Church in Frisco, TX. We had met the candidate, Elizabeth Callender, on Friday, sharing supper at a committee member's house. Saturday we interviewed, toured the church and surrounding neighborhood, and shared a few more meals.

We all liked Elizabeth, but getting everyone to agree that she was "it" was a big challenge. I never expected the process to be easy, and I had struggled with exactly what my role was. I learned the hard way that trying to force a decision based on my own preferences and reasoning was not going to work. Though it took several months I finally realized that we were supposed to be listening for God to call someone, not trying to win an argument or influence a decision. It was an especially difficult concept for me; I doubted that we would "hear" God.

I arrived at Faithbridge early, and rather than lurk at the church I drove through a nearby Starbucks, got a large ... oh, excuse me, a "venti" ... black iced tea and found a bench in the park across the street from the church to drink it, watching and waiting for other PNC members to arrive. On the bench, under the tree, out in the warm weather I thought about our responsibilities, about how I needed to "listen for God" instead of "decide for the congregation." I convinced myself that I had no idea what God sounded like, despite my earlier golf course encounter, and so, desperate for direction, I prayed.

"Gracious God. I'm not looking for lightning bolts and thunder, any sign will do, but please let me see or hear or understand something in worship today about a path forward. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."

I prayed this out loud, very self-consciously, though no one was around. Almost immediately the doubt set in. Would God answer this prayer, and if he did, how would I know it? It felt so self-serving, like I was praying for a burden to be lifted, that it was arrogant to ask for a sign from God. Oh well. The parking lot was filling up. It was time to go.

I met Linda Wren and a few other committee members in the narthex. We decided to split up and sit in small groups of two or three in different areas of the sanctuary and try not be such an obvious distraction. Linda and I sat near the back in the center section of seats on the left aisle. Faithbridge worshipped in what was also, apparently, a multi-use space ... part gym, part fellowship hall. The chancel was a raised platform in the center of the long wall across from the main doors. The cross was displayed off to one side, which seemed odd since if a cross is displayed it is typically in the center. Once I noticed that, I also saw the reason why ... the center of the chancel would be taken up by a large projection screen. "Great. Please don't let it be a Powerpoint church, I hate Powerpoint," I thought. Off to the side was a keyboard, the only instrument I saw. Sitting beside the keyboard, at a table with a laptop, was a man who appeared a bit frantic. Someone said, "problems with the music tracks again," and I despaired, expecting the music to be some Christian Rock mix-tape.

Soon enough the lights dimmed, the screen rolled down, the projector lit up and the speakers popped to life. The projected image became clearer as the screen descended. The congregation stood and began to sing along with the karaoke soundtrack coming from the laptop. As we stood to sing I let out an audible "Ha!" and Linda gave me her best teacher/Mom raised eyebrow. I shook my head, smiled and began to sing ....

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

... while looking at the scene on the screen which was a building, alone on the prairie, overpowered by huge purple storm clouds and crisp, bright, thick, many-branched lightning bolts. Thunder and lightning, in a format that made me cringe. God, it seems, does have a sense of humor.

I told the committee at our next meeting about God's joke. It did not result in an immediate, unanimous call for Elizabeth, though several months later she was called, with I believe God's will.

In the Chapel:

This past week, Holy Week, Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston was doing a 'Spoken Word' reading, where they read the Bible out loud, from Genesis through Revelation, 24 hours a day, until they finish. They started on Monday morning at 6AM and finished around 1PM on Thursday. Before they began I had every intention of going to listen, if not actually sign up to read, but things happen and you get busy and it wasn't a priority.

I haven't been sleeping that well, for a variety of reasons, and so on Thursday morning at 5-something AM I found myself lying in bed, wide awake and thought, "I've got time to get up, drive to church, listen to the Spoken Word readings for a while and still get back home before I have to start work at 8AM." So, I rolled out of bed, hustled through an abbreviated morning routine, and drove to MDPC. I arrived about a quarter after six. I was a bit concerned as I pulled in. There were only two cars in the parking lot and there didn't seem to be much activity at all, but I grabbed my Bible and headed to the chapel, where they were reading.

At the table outside the chapel was Charlie, the one and only person who knows me by name and sight at MDPC. He's one of the facilitators of the 'New Member/Get To Know MDPC' class we are attending on Sundays, and we've only met twice. I thought it was pretty remarkable, given that I randomly decided to come at this particular time, and that there are 3,500 or so members, anyone of which could have volunteered to be at the welcome table at this time. But I was glad to see him, it made me feel at home, that I was in the right place. He shook my hand and said he was glad to see me. I took a seat on the aisle, a few rows back from the front and wondered where to turn in my Bible as a new reader took the lectern and began to read.

She announced, "First Corinthians, Chapter 15." Happy that it was a New Testament reading, I quickly found the spot.

The footnotes in my Bible divide the chapter as follows:

15:1-11, The gospel of Christ's death and resurrection
15:12-34, The significance for us of the resurrection
15:35-58, The nature of the resurrection

The reader did a wonderful job and I was amazed as I sat, read along and listened. The happenstance of it all, arriving basically on a whim, and walking in to sit down and hear Paul's explanation of the resurrection, on Maundy Thursday, before Good Friday, in advance of Easter Sunday. This seemed to be "the" passage to hear before Easter! No one else was there to just listen. The other people there, like Charlie, had volunteered to greet or to read. It felt like this was being read directly to me, directly for me. And I listened, intently, with hope.

I was not disappointed. All of these words I had heard before, many, many times. This time it seemed fresh, coherent, cohesive, important. The words didn't just want to be heard, they wanted to be understood. Paul's statements, his thoughts, built from the foundation of Christ's death and resurrection, to what it represents, to what it means for us in our daily lives, and finally to the eternal, the ultimate purpose. I felt I was hearing it for the very first time and was amazed.

As the reader began verse 50, my eyes watered and I fought back tears ...

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this:
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery!
We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’

I felt that I needed to hear this, at this time, in this place. These words that I've heard hundreds of times, this time, they stuck. They mean something to me. I believe them. Where, O death, who has and will torment me, where indeed, O death, is your sting now that Christ has been raised?

It's now late afternoon on Easter Sunday, and despite my recent encounter, and regardless of the celebration I witnessed in worship today, I feel the doubt making its way into the memory and into the feeling. I was probably tired from lack of sleep. I was probably desperate to find something significant in the experience. It could have just been the poetry and picture from the reading that prompted the tears ... the reader did do a remarkable job of "selling" the passage. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the chapel setting and the familiar words simply triggered a perfectly predictable emotional response. It was probably more fever dream than burning bush, don't you think? After all, they both just make you feel too hot, right?


Brother Dan

He drove a black Volkswagen Beetle. Dad called it "one of those furrin' death traps." Mom said it worked out as she predicted; Jennifer would marry the first man she dated that was taller than her. I was a kid, recently turned 7 years old, and the first of my many brothers-in-law had come to town. He was there to marry my oldest sister, Jennifer, and I distinctly remember my first interaction with him. Mom had tasked me with setting the table and when Dan sat down at his place, he picked up his fork, looked at me and asked "Can I get a dinner fork instead of a salad fork?" Hell. I didn't know there was a difference. I was embarrassed and immediately subscribed to my parent's skeptical perception of this guy.

Jennifer is 13 years older than me and was more legend than sister. I couldn't imagine anyone being up to the standards required to marry such a smart, pretty and adventurous woman. She had moved away, off to college, only a few years before. I vaguely remember helping my parents move her to Denton, but I distinctly remember everyone being excited when Jennifer came home, even Mom and Dad, who didn't get excited much. Now, getting married, well, we would not be her home anymore. She would still visit, of course, but even a seven year old knows that getting married is a permanent, life altering decision. I expected him to be as worldly and wise and sophisticated as my sister after all, she picked him. I'm not sure he was any of those things, but he was certainly different.

First of all, he was loud. He had a loud, deep voice that got your attention. He was tall and thin, even taller than my big brother Billy. He was direct, and not just about things like salad forks. For example, when asked about the Beetle he didn't just make small talk about affordability and gas mileage, he would explain how it was the superior automotive choice, daring you to challenge his position. He did not defer to my Dad on every discussion of weather or cars or work. He did not react to Mom's subtle insults and comments. Perhaps that's because he did not know her well enough, but I suspect it was because he didn't really care what she thought. All of these characteristics spoke to his confidence which was indeed something foreign to me and my environment, like his car. Dan was the ground-breaker, the first of my many brothers-by-marriage, and I appreciate all the things I learned from him and most of all, his friendship and the mutual respect we shared.

As a boy, Dan taught me many things. I spent a lot of time on summer vacations with Dan and Jennifer, and though the things we did would seem mundane to some, they were quite the adventure for a small town Texas Panhandle kid. Jennifer and Dan were married in August of 1966 at the Central Church of Christ (reception to follow at the Coronado Inn) and I was seven years old. When I turned nine, in the summer of 1968, I spent several weeks with them and continued to spend some time with them every summer until I was a teenager.

We went to Fort Concho in San Angelo while we were visiting his family. Jennifer bought me a souvenir "bull whip" and Dan helped me learn to crack it in his mother's backyard. He told me stories of his own childhood and how he learned a lot from Fess Parker as Daniel Boone, and even had a coonskin cap.

Though my family were big 42 players (it's a domino game for those unfamiliar), Dan was the one who taught me to play, again at his mother's house. He was patient to a point, but you didn't want to make the same mistake twice, especially if it cost you the hand. Dan was competitive.

I would not say that Dan was a "foodie", but he did introduce me to Green Goddess salad dressing, eating raw green onions that have been chilled in a glass of water in the refrigerator, eating scrambled eggs with pickled green pepper sauce and wheat bread. He also took me to Taco Bell, my first exposure to "mexican food" of any kind, though I have yet to see an "enchirito" again. And though I suspect it was more about catching the fish than cooking them, the best fried fish filets I've ever had were cooked by Dan.

His mother kept a pistol, a pearl handled, nickel plated, pocket sized semi-automatic .22 in her apron pocket. Once, when we were playing 42, it clanked against the table as she stood up, so she pulled it out and set it next to her iced tea on the card table. I can't imagine what face I made, but on later adventures, when I was amazed or confused Dan would say, "There's that pistol face again" and remind me of the story.

Once, I sat in the back seat of their '67 Mercury Cougar as Dan and Jennifer fought over the length of my hair. I had been staying with them a while and I suppose my hair was longer than what Dan deemed appropriate for a boy ... it was the late 60s. Jennifer argued to "let him be" and "he's just a kid." There was enough shouting to make me cry. That may sound like a terrible thing, but my only exposure to married people fighting was the deadly silences between Mom and Dad, and then having one or the other vent their side to me while riding alone with them in the car. Note that despite the argument, I did not get my hair cut until I got home to Pampa, at which point Mom took me to Bob & Gip's barber shop and had my hair buzzed, unfortunately for me, right before school started.

Dan took me to work with him. It was summer and hot and humid and the job was roofing lake houses with wood shingles. I did a lot of gopher work in the mornings and then, when it got really hot, he'd let me go fish from the shore while he and his buddy, Gilbert I think, continued shingling. I never caught many fish, but I learned the difference between shingles and shakes, why a rip hammer is different than a claw hammer, how to pop a chalk line and to appreciate a nice piece of shade and a little breeze while eating deviled ham sandwiches on white bread, dill pickles and iced tea.

Dan took me fishing, on a boat, and let me drive it. My Dad was always prompting me to drive cars and tractors and trucks, so I knew the drill. Once we found ourselves right in the middle of a school of sand bass in some sort of feeding frenzy. My cheap Zebco 202 had a silver spoon on and it would no more touch the water than some sandie would hit it. I heard "there's that pistol face." Dan had been driving and had a worm on, which was no good in this situation because they were feeding on some shad. He told me he would get the fish off the hook and for me to keep casting that silver spoon. I don't know how many we caught, but it was a bunch. He taught me to clean and filet fish that day, too.

Dan took me to my first professional sporting event. We sat in the cheap seats at the old Arlington Stadium to see the Texas Rangers. He was too cheap to pay for parking, so we parked out in some trees on some undeveloped land near the stadium and walked a bit further than those who paid to park. Though I had played baseball, Dan explained it. He was openly critical of poor play, and with his loud voice everyone around us would hear him. One time, there was a guy a few rows in front who would shout "Amen, Brother!" when Dan would criticize a weak at bat by Ted Ford or praise a defensive play by Toby Harrah.

By the time I was in my teens I stopped spending summers with them, but they still came up for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Once, at Thanksgiving, just Dan and I went quail hunting at Uncle Ivan's place near Shamrock. We also hunted on my Uncle Joe's place which was near there. Though I had been hunting before with Dad and Bill, their approach was a lot more relaxed, if you see 'em shoot 'em. Dan was more intense, you didn't just hope they were there, you went looking for them, and you kept looking. We got maybe 6 or 8 birds total, with me getting only one of those. The one I hit was only winged, and still alive when we found it. Dan quickly popped its head off and put it in his game bag. There was a dusting of snow when we started that morning. Much of it had melted, but there was still some to be found in the shade of the tall grass or behind a fence post. He washed hands with snow and said "hunting's not about suffering."

I have two fond memories of Dan from when I was in college. Once he loaned me $500, a princely sum in those days, so that I could go on a ski trip during winter break. There was no question he expected to be paid back (and I hope I actually did!), but he told me he thought it was important to have fun when you're young enough to not have responsibilities but old enough for really fun things. The other was during my senior year at NTSU (now UNT). It was nearing the end of the spring semester and I would soon be interviewing for jobs. I was going to Ft. Worth to hand deliver some applications and résumés. When he learned I was coming that way he asked me to meet him at The Pioneer, his regular after work hangout, what some might call a dive bar. As I walked in, my eyes adjusting to the dim lights inside, I heard Dan say "why I could beat you with that skinny long haired kid as my partner!" They invited me over and I began to play shuffle board with Dan as my partner. The standing wager was pitchers of beer and after we won a couple he confessed I was a ringer, since he had taught me to play on a few other occasions. He introduced me to his friends and had me go to the car to get a copy of my résumé. Later, I got an offer from Texas Employer's Insurance, his employer, but I opted to take another offer from Kraft Foods in Garland, which is a whole 'nother story, as they say.

There were so many other things, so many little, insignificant things, that on reflection reveal his impact was on my life. I first heard about Rush Limbaugh from Dan, and I still refer to the Fort Worth Star Telegram as "The Startlegram." I like the smell of pipe tobacco and smoked a pipe for many years. I understand rough, calloused hands are the result of intention, not carelessness. I know the effort involved in investing wisely, and the consequences of debt. I learned that anger can obscure your best intentions and prevent you from being heard or appreciated. I witnessed the sanctity and personal implementation of "in sickness and in health." And I know, from experience with Dan, that a loud voice and confident manner does not replace a fundamental humility, and that being direct, or honest, doesn't mean you don't care. It means that you honestly do care.

As we got older, our relationship changed. Dan mellowed out a bit, and I gained more experience with work and marriage and the world in general, so we eventually ended up with a peer-like relationship, a "brother" relationship. I saw him most recently at Christmas, at Jessica's house, and we talked of sports and politics and the struggles of married men as we often did.  Not long after we learned that Dan had been diagnosed with cancer, and sooner than anticipated he passed away. When I heard about the diagnosis and prognosis I sent the following text to Whitney and Jessica:

"Also, please know and feel free to share with Dan that my life has been better because he has been in it. He's given me much more than he knows. That may be hard for you to see, but it's true."

And it is true. I know that my brother Dan was a stumbling block for many. He had his flaws, as do
we all, but he was good to me, and treated me better than I deserved. As the kid brother of his wife, from a family that did not always accept his "differentness", I have what I think is a unique perspective. I worshipped my sister Jennifer, and still do, because of all the above plus the many other things she has given to me. As kid brother I have witnessed, from an objective position, a 50 year marriage. That does not happen without love. It does not happen without grace and forgiveness and joy and sorrow. It does not happen without being worthy of respect. I once read that men want to be respected by a woman they love, and women want to be loved by a man they can respect. I cannot testify that this was true for Jennifer and Dan, but I hope it was, because I respect them more than they will ever know.

My life has been better because Dan was in it. What more can you ask? I will miss him, but I cannot forget him because he helped shape my life.

And finally, much like my Dad, Dan was not a church-goer. I have no special insight into the workings of the Almighty, but I have faith that his grace is sufficient. I suspect that Dan, always keen to see to the crux of any issue, knew that grace was there, and took full advantage of it. Rest in peace brother Dan. I love you.


A True Story

Nearly 30 years ago I went to a gun show at Dallas Market Hall. It was around Thanksgiving and I bought a very clean Weatherby 12 gauge pump shotgun for myself as an early Christmas present. I paid around $180 for it, and I still have it. In the front corner of the hall, where individuals rented tables to sell their personal collections, was a small table covered with pamphlets. It was staffed by a passionate, middle-aged man wearing a white dress shirt, a bolo tie, and two pieces, the vest and slacks, of his Sunday church suit. He wore a pocket watch with a chain which was tucked into the vest pocket and from the chain dangled a prominent enameled Texas flag. There must have been a dozen different pamphlets with titles like 'Federal Overreach and You!' and 'Missing the Mark: The Founding Father's Vision' and 'Who Really Owns Your Home: Property Taxes & Eminent Domain Explained.' He was soliciting signatures for a petition. I didn't read it or sign it but I knew it was about secession, specifically about making Texas an independent nation again. That was the first time I remember hearing about Texas independence. I immediately labeled it crazy-talk.

It's not sounding quite so crazy these days.

My change in attitude is not the result of some specific event that crossed some line and flipped my
switch, though there have been many such things over these past 30 years. To take one example, I remove my shoes at the airport like everyone else. Some see this requirement for what it is, a violation of the 4th Amendment, an erosion of liberty, and trading rights for the appearance of security. Those who don't see it that way can only argue that it is a trivial, inconsequential thing, a standard refrain when rights are trimmed away, but that does not refute the argument. Our liberties have been eroded over decades; it is a sneaky process. It is so subtle it is hard to see when the line has been crossed because the line, you see, keeps being moved. There was not some epiphanic event that sent me to shouting "SECESSION!" As frustrating as the news is each and every day, my attitude change on Texas independence was not based solely on emotion, though it does play a part.

The engineer in me would love to be able to explain the details of how Texas Independence might work, providing specific examples in areas like trade and tax and transportation. I'd like to say "See! This is better!" But I know that plans and people are not perfect; there are no guarantees. We can attempt to tune the economic and social dials, to synchronize the inputs and moderate the outputs, but some things, especially the large important things, are beyond our abilities of macro-control and require the fine adjustments of millions of fathers and mothers and teachers and owners to move the compass to an appropriate direction. Those who argue for smaller government and local control have one powerful argument, that smaller is easier to manage, but our lives, both our social and our private lives, are not intended to be managed, monitored and measured. They are intended to be lived. We fool ourselves into thinking that if only we had a more controllable system, something smaller, something restricted, something manageable, that it would be "better." Texas Independence may be a logical solution, but logic and efficiency and practicality by themselves are not sufficient to let me endorse such a drastic change. In less than 200 years a perfectly rational system of government, designed to thwart tyranny, has itself become tyrannical, though we hesitate to name it that. The next thing we try must be more than logical.

It would be impossible, in the course of these few paragraphs, to assemble the evidence and lay out my case for how Texas Independence is not crazy-talk. It is not an open and shut case. The evidence for and against is compelling, and it shifts based on prejudice and perspective. Some might say the winning argument is obvious based on logic and emotion, but the other side is making the exact same case. This is how trials work. Both sides present their case, the judge defines the legal boundaries for the jury, and a jury decides guilt on the preponderance of evidence. In this case, there are no legal boundaries, or if there are they are without question set up in favor of the present legal authorities. When you challenge the legal authorities your case needs to be made in an extra-legal manner, appealing to higher, incorruptible judgment. There is no legal case to be made. The case for Texas Independence should be about truth, not the definitions and nuances of truth that are distilled and framed and simplified for a jury.

And so, what are we left with to make the case, win the argument and convince people that Texas Independence is not just crazy-talk?  We have all of the above, emotion and reason and evidence, and we have the story.

The power of the story can be illustrated by the popular TV show 'American Pickers.' In it two guys, Mike and Frank, with an antique store in Iowa, drive around the country and attempt to buy interesting items, antiques, and collectibles from other collectors and hoarders and junk dealers. Sometimes Mike and Frank find an item and have an emotional connection to it. Maybe it's unique and they haven't seen one before, or maybe they connect personally, or maybe it simply has some quality that draws them to it. They become emotionally invested in it and do their best to acquire it. Other times, they find an item that fits a need, or will be perfect for an existing client, or will complete some project. Acquiring these kind of items is a practicality, a logical necessity. Sometimes neither emotion or logic are involved. Sometimes it is simply business and they have to weigh the pros and cons of acquiring the item. They consider all of the evidence ... the price, the potential selling price, what their customers like, how it can best be presented ... and then they must decide to buy or pass.

If we put ourselves in Mike and Frank's place, would we pay the price for Texas Independence? Most Texans are emotionally connected to being Texan, to living here, to the swagger and the independence and even the landscape, the wide open spaces. We can also understand the logical arguments, the value of local control and the relief from federal interference in our lives. We would struggle with legal arguments, with evaluating all the evidence and reconciling our obligation to current legal authorities. Texas Independence would impact many aspects of our lives and there would be good arguments, indeed there would be too many arguments, on both sides, for people to make a fully informed decision. Though emotion and logic can be powerful arguments, the real strength in the idea of Texas Independence is in the story that supports it, and what the story says about us, about Texans.

Mike and Frank, regardless of their feelings or thinking, always buy the item with a good story. Who owned it? How did they use it? Where did it come from? What significance did it have in the owners life or in the community or in the historical context? The story sells it, not only to Mike and Frank, but from Mike and Frank to their customers. The caveat, however, is that the story must be true. If it is not, all the value disappears and there is no reason for further consideration. No one wants to pay the price for an original and end up with a reproduction.

Texas Independence may be emotionally appealing to some and be logical to others. Those in favor or against should be able to make a strong case for their position based strictly on evidence and legal definitions, but their argument must be true to win the case. The phrase "beyond a shadow of a doubt" is often used to describe the conviction that a jury member should have before voting "guilty." It is an unrealistic standard that can never be truly met. We all doubt. The intent of the phrase is to show that "guilty" is a vote for truth. Facts are impartial. Evidence is not. Evidence is presented and speculated on and seeded with doubt from one side or the other. It is the jury's job to decide which story regarding the evidence is true.

This writing began as an exercise in trying to understand and explain to myself, and others, why I
have come to the conclusion that Texas Independence is a viable, non-crazy solution to the crazy, and dangerous, political climate in today's United States. The emotional argument, rooted in simply paying attention to the daily news, is not sufficient by itself. Having Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as our presidential nominees certainly makes me angry and sad, but using that argument alone makes shouting "SECESSION!" seem like the predictable "I'm moving to Canada!" threats seen during every presidential election. The logical argument, trading the unsustainable federal spending and debt for a solvent Texas and any other number of similar situations, though reasonable, doesn't work for many people because they want to believe the spending can be curtailed and the debt can be retired. They believe that the current situation can be fixed, either by electing the right people or promoting an appropriate hashtag. The legal approach of presenting evidence and allowing the public, as jury, to decide is not reliable. The current system is obviously biased against getting rid of itself, and it would be difficult to trust the evidence as presented by either the media or current political leaders, both of which are notoriously dishonest. And so we are left to decide where the truth resides without any available trustworthy thing.

Should we stay, or should we go?

When a jury is charged with identifying the truth of one side or the other they have much to consider. First they have to determine which version of the evidence presented is most reasonable. Then they have to try to discern from the testimony of others, and by observing the defendant and witnesses, which statements are true or false. Finally, they must understand the legal parameters and what they are allowed to consider. No matter how the case evolves there is one thing that will definitively shift their vote and that is truth or, importantly, the absence of truth. My contention, and the reason I think that Texas Independence is no longer just crazy-talk, is that we now know the American story, the United States story, is no longer true and the falsification of that means the other story, Texas Independence, is more true until proven otherwise. If one story is provably false, the other should win.

I believe the American story, at one time, was true. Drastic measures, like a Convention of States, might help reclaim some of that truth, but we are currently not living in the environment envisioned by our founders and by the Constitution which theoretically binds us. We are now Americans in name only and our options, at this point, are to reclaim the truth of the American vision through an Article V convention, or strike out on our own and establish a new true story for Texas. I side with striking out on our own, if only because the current system is corrupt and untrustworthy. I support both an Article V Convention of States, in an attempt to preserve the great American experiment, and Texas Independence, in an attempt to reclaim lost liberty, re-establish the idea of God-given rights and to be a part of a true story, or at least the attempt to create one.


Christy Street circa 1969

A typical summer morning, circa 1968/69, Christy Street, Pampa, TX ...

"What do you wanna do?"
"I don't know. What do you wanna do?"
"Wanna get up a baseball game?"
"Nah. We'd have to get the Dwight and Wells St. kids to have enough and the girls will say it's too hot."
"Wanna go down to Walter's and hang out in the tree house?"
"Walter had to go to work with his Dad this morning at the laundry."
"I went to the laundry with Walter last Saturday. His Dad let us clean out the drain traps and keep the change we found. I got about 60 cents."
"You still have it?"
"Yeah. Why?"
"Well, I've got some Black Cats and lady fingers. We could go get some more at the firecracker stand."
"Yeah, do you have any money?"
"No, but I've got some pop bottles we could sell."
"Where do you want to shoot 'em? Last time we shot 'em around here someone called the cops."
"How 'bout motorcycle hills? The pit's full of water."
"Okay, let's go."

We were sitting on the curb in front of my house, poking the melty blacktop with sticks and wrecking the fortifications that we'd built yesterday for the green army men. There should have been grass in the parkway, between where the sidewalk should be and the curb, but for some reason the sidewalk ended on the north edge of our lot and the parkway was more beat down dirt than grass. Lawn care was not high on the family priority list. Just beyond the battle ground was the cemetery, where we buried frogs and cicadas and the occasional water dog, marking the graves with popsicle sticks or colorful rocks we'd found. On the curb, in front of the cemetery area, we'd drawn some skull and crossbones using the ever-present chalk rocks - chunks of caliche if you want to be proper.

"How much did we get for the pop bottles?"
"Duh. Thirty cents. Five times six. It's math."
"Okay, smart ass."
"Rather be a smart ass than a dumb ass."
"Yeah, yeah. So, ninety cents between us ... see, I do math, too! What are we gonna get?"
"All Black Cats. No sparklers or black snakes or pop-its. They're cheap because they're no fun."
"What about bottle rockets?"
"Maybe. Hey, you got any pipe?"
"There's some in the garage. Whattaya need pipe for?"
"I wanna make a rifle that uses bottle rockets for ammo."
"That'd be cool."

Ninety cents later we returned to the garage from the firecracker stand with 75 cents worth of bottle rockets, some nickel packs of Black Cats and the punks that they threw in. A rusted piece of pipe, about two foot long, was converted into a bottle rocket rifle using electrical tape and a couple of pieces of 1x2 pine to make grips, and a hack saw to cut a slot along the top of the pipe for the fuse. We packed up, included a box of strike anywhere matches pilfered from the kitchen, and headed out to motorcycle hills. It was far enough away so that nobody would call the cops plus, we could shoot across the pit which was full of water and hopefully not start a fire. On the way we stopped behind Dean's house, nobody was home, and got a drink from their hose. We picked up a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Brontosaurus that someone had left in the sandbox, too. They'd make good targets.

It was hot and bright and dry. Sweat disappeared quickly in the dry summer air, leaving droplet shaped marks where the sweat washed away dust. The pig weed and johnson grass had that dusty no-rain-for-a-bit sheen about them. There was no shade to be found so we didn't bother even looking. It wasn't a long walk, just across Farley and then maybe a half mile, but there were a lot of distractions along the way. We helped each other through the barbed wire (bob-wahr) fences, by stepping on the third strand and lifting up the second. We felt compelled to stop at a major red ant mound to set off some Black Cat demolition charges. We caught a horny toad, but then turned it loose because we didn't want to go home and make a place to keep him. We checked the rabbit trap box we'd set out a few days ago, too. The carrot was gone, but the trap wasn't tripped. Someone had dumped a refrigerator which wasn't there the last time and we thought about doing some explosive testing, but it was too heavy to mess with so we moved on, discussing target set up and, more importantly, who got to shoot first. We picked a spot at the top of the pit with a clear shot across to a low ledge on the opposite site. I went around to set up the targets on the ledge, the T-Rex and the Bronto. Gary unpacked the fireworks and the pipe-rifle and got the first punk going.

We'd cut the slot on top just right. With the fuse pulled up the end of the bottle rocket was flush with the end of the pipe. From experience we knew it was always best to light your own firecrackers and since Gary was taking the first shot I let him line it up and then handed him the punk.

Despite the precise engineering, the first shot was high, way high, hitting a good ten feet above the dinosaurs. The second shot, after compensating for the first, was even worse, exploding under the water in the pit. It seemed that our "rifle" had some accuracy issues. Despite the avionics supplied by the bright pink stick glued to the engine, we could not predict the trajectory. The T-Rex and Bronto would remain unscathed and, eventually, be returned to the relatively peaceful environs of the sandbox in Dean's back yard, but that didn't prevent us from lighting off every single rocket in one experiment or another.

"You hungry?"
"Yeah. Ready to head back?"
"Sure. We can save the Black Cats for later."
"Okay. Hang on a second. I want to get these grassburrs out of my shoelaces."
"You'll just get more on the way back."
"Nuh uh. I'm gonna tuck in the bows."
"Yeah? Me, too."
"Dang, it's hot."
"Yeah. If we see any sprinklers, I'm running through."
"Huh. If we see any sprinklers, I'm gonna lay down in the grass!"
"Yeah, yeah, but don't get the Black Cats wet."

Lunch was bologna sandwiches with mustard on white bread and black cherry Kool-Aid to drink. The bologna wasn't pre-sliced Oscar Mayer. Mom tended to buy the cheaper roll of bologna with the red wrapper that you had to slice yourself. Yes, you had to peel the red wrap off, but you also got to custom slice it, thick enough to fry if you felt like it. We also took the last two freezer pops, though they rightfully belonged to my sisters. They were the orange ones, which no one really liked, so they probably wouldn't complain too much.

"Let's take our bikes and go see if Walter's home. My kickstand is loose and his Dad said it needed a lock washer. He said I could have one."
"Okay. I'm gonna ask Mom for some change. After we fix the bikes, let's go to the Quik Stop."
"Okay. See you at Walter's."

Walter was home, and we puttered around in his garage for a while, using inordinate amounts of WD-40 and never putting the tools up properly. Soon enough we headed to the Quik Stop and thanks to the generosity of Gary's Mom, we had enough money for soda pops and peanuts. We sat on the curb in the shade of the building, arguing about which was better with peanuts, Nehi Red or Pepsi. The trick was to get all the peanuts out of the bottle before you ran out of soda or the peanuts would stick on the bottom. Personally, I thought the Pepsi was better.

"Hey, what time is it?"
Looking at the 7-Up clock in the store window, "It's quarter to three."
"We need to head back. Dark Shadows starts at 3 and it looked like Quentin was dead yesterday."
"Okay, but I don't want to get stuck watching TV with the girls all afternoon, so let's see if they'll play kick-the-can or chase after the show."

Late in the afternoon a full blown kick-the-can game was on. Tommy came over from Dwight and the full Christy St. contingent was out, including my two sisters, Gary's sister, both of the Greens, Tony and his sisters, the twins, Walter, Dean, both Spencer's and even Tonya, who was in town for a few weeks visiting her Grandmother. I couldn't tell you who won or lost, but there was lots of running and shouting and sneaking and strategizing. Around 6 o'clock people started dropping out as the front porch shouting began ... "Tanyan! Time for supper!" ... "Mom says 'get home for supper!'" ... "Supper time! Don't make me come get you!"

Sometimes the game picked up again after supper. It seemed to stay light until the late news came on, but I suspect it was our eyes adjusting to the twilight and the desire to stay up a little bit longer.

"You better get home!"
"It's not even dark yet!"
"Are the street lights on? You better be home before the street lights come on or you'll get a whuppin'!"

Summer days on Christy Street fell into a familiar pattern. Games in the neighborhood. Trips to the Pampa public pool. Scrounging for change for sno-cones and fudgesicles. Card games and jacks and board games and bikes. Running through sprinklers and from each other. Not a moment was wasted. Summertime was precious.

One specific morning, before the typical curbside conference, the telephone rang. My sister answered. No one could get to a ringing phone faster than her.

"Dexter! It's for you!"

"Yeah. Okay. Sure."

"Who was that?"
"Dean's brother? What did he want?"
"I dunno. Wants me to come over."
"That's weird."
"Yeah. I'll be back in while. Don't drink the last Mountain Dew, it's mine!"

The day described above is a conglomeration of typical, random, remembered activities. But I remember the phone call morning specifically. It was the day that Frankie molested me.

Until today, I have never said anything to anyone. I don't regret the decision that my kid self made to keep the secret. Afterwards, I felt more like a participant than a victim, that I had somehow given permission. My adult self, however, regrets keeping the secret. I should have said something, at least when I was older and could handle the repercussions. I don't know if he molested anyone else. If he has, then I feel partially to blame.

I only recall one other time of even interacting with him. I was in choir - 5th, 6th, 7th grade - something. Every year there was a spring concert for all the choirs in every school, from elementary through high school, which was held at the high school field house. In line, in some hallway, before filing in to our designated bleacher positions, I saw Frankie standing with the high school choir, in black and white formal attire. He was standing by himself and I watched him, wondering if he remembered that day, wondering how he would react if he saw me staring. He spoke with no one; just stood there alone. His posture, his movements, his fidgeting - they all struck me as effeminate. Eventually, he seemed to have felt my stare and turned, looking directly at me. He smiled, but looked away quickly, still smiling. He knew the secret was safe. And so it was, but now it's not.


A Cancer Catharsis

The AC was the worst. Not AC as in air-conditioning or alternating-current, AC as in adriamycin (doxorubicin) / cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy drug. It wasn't the side effects or the administration or even the unknown results that made it so bad; the physical existence of the drug, coming face-to-face with it, knowing it meant suffering and that you were advocating its use, that was what made it bad. You're there in the infusion room which, though quite medicinal, is comfortable and staffed by caring, competent nurses. For more than an hour you get a series of prep medicines ... steroids, anti-nausea, saline ... and suddenly, it seems, they bring out the AC. There are multiple large syringes full of this almost impossibly evil-red medicine which they set on the tray next to your infusion pump. Instead of running this through the pump, it is injected in the tubing that is connected to the port in your chest, which was surgically installed just for this purpose. The injection doesn't hurt, much; the port and the cold spray helps with that. The nurse goes through a check list with you:

"your urine will be red today"
"let me know if you feel any burning as this may indicate leakage of the medicine outside the vein"
"be sure you flush twice when you get home, you don't want to breathe any of this"
"how are you doing?" 

As you are processing this, you glance at the tray and notice that there is another AC syringe, yet to be administered. Another one? "My God," you think, "this is freaking me out, what can possibly be going on in her head?"

The AC was the worst. You sit and watch your wife injected with a toxin. There is nothing you can do. You've been married for 30+ years and you can feel her fear. You can feel it. It's tangible. And there is nothing you can do. No hand holding. No hugging. No kiss on the forehead. No butt squeeze. You know that none of that will provide comfort and your mind buzzes, searching for words to reassure. Nothing comes, and you resort to joking, distractions ... "Is that color more like strawberry jello or cherry kool-aid?" In sickness and in health they say. Who knew you would, at some point, be advocating sickness, praying for the poison to work in the hope for long term health. Those devil-red syringes, laid out so carefully, looking so proper and yet so sinister, they symbolized everything up to this point. The danger. The unknown future. The dark arts and butchery of the prescribed treatment. The AC was a trigger point. That was when it got real for me.

It was easy to be brave at the diagnosis. I've had cancer and a little surgery took care of that, no muss, no fuss. It's easy enough to be reassuring when you don't know what's ahead. You both know you're lying, but lying with good intentions, and besides, there is really no need to over-react, or start the pity-party, or rally the troops ... we are a long way from needing support and why burden them? Everyone's life is hard. It's just another project to manage, another challenge to face, another test like the job losses and relocations, losing a parent, the pregnancy that wasn't to be. Given our history, there was every expectation that the challenge would be well met. And so, it has been. It's been 18 months, and the reconstruction surgery, a major milestone, has just been completed.

You might think that the bi-lateral mastectomy would be the worst thing, and it was pretty bad. No one wants to lose body parts, but it had to be done. It had to be. The lack of options made it easier, but the drains, the recovery, the expanders, the scars ... they all leave a mark. Do you have any big scars, from bicycle accidents or surgeries or unrequited love? If so, you know that place remains numb for a long time, and that you will never have the exact same sensations in that place, but it had to be done, so you live with the numbness and you hope that some day you won't miss the sensations any more. You understand that adjustments will have to be made and hope there will be, at some point, a new, workable normal.

You also might think that the chemo side-effects would be the worst, and they were pretty bad, too. They give you a prep list to mitigate the worst of it. They load you up early and often on anti-nausea meds. They are big advocates of laxatives and mouth hygiene and hydration. Before long you get used to the routine and the weeks become marked not by the calendar, but by how far to or from infusion you are.

  • Chemo day, feeling pretty good. Steroids in the infusion room give a nice boost.
  • Chemo night, no sleep. Hyped from steroids and anxiety.
  • For a day or so after that, surprisingly okay, until the toxins catch up to the feel-goods.
  • A few days out, in the bed, on the sofa, at the toilet.
  • Three to five days out, in the bed, on the sofa, at the toilet with some moments of small comfort.
  • Six to ten days out, more human, no energy, on the sofa, in the bed.
  • Nine to twelve days out, better, some appetite, sleeping is easier.
  • Twelve to thirteen days out, taking care of business, re-grouping, organizing, resting up.
  • Chemo day. So soon?

By the fourth infusion the hair is gone, the nails are thin and weak, the mouth is sensitive and, more concerning, the recovery is slower. How many weeks left?

Once the AC weeks were over it was time for the taxol regimen, which was longer and weekly, not quite as difficult and yet still very miserable, just different. Then radiation, 30+ days, every day. Then, mercifully, some peace from doctor's appointments and treatments. Just because they stop putting the drugs in you, however, doesn't mean you've recovered. It's months before you start feeling close to normal, and you're still tired and wondering what the 'new normal' might be. But it had to be done and the cancer is gone, though in your mind you always append that statement with 'for now' which makes you a bit irritated with yourself and then you realize that it's all part of the new normal. Which sucks, but is better than having cancer. Or dying. So not fun, but not the worst.

There are, of course, no good parts. It doesn't bring you closer to your loved ones. It doesn't make you stronger. It doesn't make you a super hero. It doesn't strengthen your faith or affirm your commitments or make you live "healthier" (whatever that means). It makes you aware that you can endure, that you can, at some point, if you are lucky, overcome the misery, but you already knew that and there's little benefit to trying to force something good out of something so bad. It is, more than anything else, a testament to the power of work ethic, of putting one foot in front of the other, to perseverance, to the strength of life. And you, as cancer victim or cancer care-taker, are left to make of that what you will, whether there is joy in the struggle or despair in the helplessness, whether there is a wellspring of strength or of overwhelming weakness, whether there is honor in the effort or shame in dragging others along. Cancer does not make you better; it only tests who you already are.

I'm sure there are many that would say that cancer strengthened their faith. That primarily works for those who have survived, or those who desperately want to find some good in it. "God is good, all the time" is a powerful motivator for trying to find some goodness in evil things, like cancer, but it does not displace their essential, evil nature. I believe that God is capable of creating a perfect world, and I equally believe that this is not that world. Many people believe that God can cure them of cancer. I have no doubt that He can, but I have serious doubt that he chooses to do so. A loving God, which I believe He is, would cure everyone of cancer, and yet, He does not. Some would say that is proof that God does not exist, but I believe that it is simply not the way God chooses to work in this world.

People suffer. It is our lot. Belief in God doesn't make you better or smarter or "more" blessed. It is not God's job to make you feel better about yourself. Buying products with pink ribbons saves not one life, and the lady driving the new Mercedes with the 'BL3SS3D' license plate should likely thank the finance company more than her Lord and Savior. God's comfort is not found in being holy enough to deserve to be healed or blessed, it is found in knowing that regardless of your situation, you are loved, and deserving of the perfect world that only God, not man, can create.

Cancer did not make me doubt God the Creator, picturing Him as arrogantly tolerating evil in this world, watching us suffer. It did, however, help me understand Jesus the Son, the bridegroom, watching his beloved suffer, praying for the poison to work, investing in the goodness and power of life, aching to let us know that regardless of the outcome, regardless of the present situation or our righteousness, we are loved. If I could, I would have taken her place. If you have loved, you know the truth of that sacrificial feeling. I am, however, just an imperfect man, in an imperfect world and I have nothing to offer but love, and that, I feel sure, I do not offer fully and completely enough for anyone's healing. I pray it is sufficient, but I fear that it won't be. As little as it might be, it is all I have to offer. Thankfully, I have faith in an all-sufficient love that does not depend on me.

So there you have it, my cancer catharsis, with apologies to Mr. Nooncaster who first introduced me to the word. There is much more to the story, details and difficulties that I won't give power to by mentioning since they have been overcome. It is not an easy path. I can't even imagine how it has been for her. It has altered our course, but it has not ended it, and that is the best that can be said.