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Spiders and Clarity

I haven’t written from the porch for the past couple of weeks. Time has been short. I’m playing catch up from a recent two-day stint in the hospital (long story but everything’s okay). They couldn’t figure out what was going on. I guess that’s why doctors only “practice” medicine…

I could use the whole hospital thing to explain my lack of recent communication, but I won’t. The truth is a bit uglier than that. The reality is there’s been some doubt and depression going on the last few days. When I started writing “Thoughts From the Porch”, my intent was to only write positive, encouraging words. God knows there’s enough negative crap out there!

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Unfortunately, life isn’t always happy, joyous, and free. Life shows up in some awful ways. Even when I feel I’m on the path God has chosen for me it can have some serious rough spots. I would be dishonest if I didn’t share those as well. I may not write in a manner comparable to great authors or even my fellow writers on WordPress, but I’ve learned to be truthful, to be authentic, and to be myself regardless of how I’d like to be.

The truth is that I haven’t liked myself very much the last few days. Sometimes, the truth sucks. As my friend Edgar always tells me, “The truth will set you free, but it’ll really piss you off first.” Quite frankly, I’ve been pissed.

Margaret and I have struggled financially over the last few months. Work has been slow as most of my time is spent on the urban farm project, Opal’s Farm. Most of you know my passion for the project. Margaret and I prayed diligently before taking on this task. We went into it with eyes wide-open. We knew money would be tight until we gained sponsors and had our first harvest. Looking back over the last few months, hell, even over our lifetime, we can see God’s thread all the way through. He stands with us through all the difficult times. Bills get paid, we eat regularly, and most of the time life is good despite the setbacks that come with our chosen path. However, there are times when an awareness of God’s providence is insufficient to stave off the blues.

In lieu of our smaller income we’ve been forced to put off needed home repairs and tighten our money belt in ways neither of us have experienced, at least in our lives together. Add to that Margaret’s chronic pain, limited mobility, and the depression that rears its ugly head as a result. Frustration and stress mounts despite our faith in the Almighty. It’s a recipe for doubt, fear, and self-loathing, for me at least, and it has been simmering for quite a while. Yesterday it came to a boil…

A serious case of the “F..k Its”.

Yes, folks, expletive laced prayers, lamentations of “poor me”, and drowning in a cesspool of comparing myself to everyone else. I threw a temper tantrum! Why me?

I imagine some of you can relate. It felt as though my world had fallen apart and God was nowhere to be found. He always seems to be playing ‘Hide and Seek’ when I need Him: just like with everything else in my world. I immediately decided to quit the farm, stop writing, and start looking out for Number One. I’d probably have to become a greeter at WalMart (no offense intended – all work is important). A career in bank robbery seemed a viable alternative to the present financial hardships. You must take it, because no one’s going to give to you, right?

If it sounds a bit extreme, it is. I tend to go for extremes. A friend once told me that “balance is the beam I trip on while running between extremes”.  Yep!

I always feel like such a spoiled brat after these not-so-little tantrums. It doesn’t take as long as it used to getting over these fits of doubt, frustration, and fear (that’s really what the tantrum is about…). I find relief in the fact they don’t happen very often anymore, but I sure hate it when they do. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can identify with this temporary insanity…

Fortunately, sanity returns, I own my behavior, make amends for the harsh words and actions, and find forgiveness and gratitude for everything I do have. First and foremost, I have a Heavenly Father who appreciates my authenticity. I’m sure most church folks would be shocked by how I “pray”. It’s not always pious and formal. Still, God allows me to express my doubts and fears. He listens. He understands and He loves me right where I’m at – expletives and all. He allows my rants and then holds me close to remind me that I’m loved and it’s okay to be human. I’m His child.

Somewhere in this process I find peace. The situation hasn’t changed at all, but I have.

Healing the Blind…

My tantrums always begin with tunnel vision and outright blindness. The world is out of focus, blurred with pain and frustration, and I can only see myself, my needs, and my wants. When I finally grow tired of emotional blindness, I hear Jesus’ question to the blind man at the Pool of Siloam, “Do you want to be healed?”

It sounds like a simple question doesn’t it? Sure, I want to be healed, but… I tend to find excuses, much like the guy at the Pool, until finally, I can see again.

Restoration of sight, healing, takes place in miraculous ways for me. It happened the other night. Blinded by my self-centered fear and doubt, I stormed out to the porch to be alone. I stood there, blindly staring into the night, when a tiny spider and his (or her – I’m not sure how to tell the difference) web began to take focus.

As my vision sharpened, the intricacy and size of the web grew. I saw his tiny legs shooting across the web with new silken strands. The minute strands vibrated in the wind but never strayed apart. It seemed impossible.

It sounds silly to be so intrigued by a simple spider web, but I’m kind of a simple guy, I guess. However, this tiny spider is building his web in the same place on our porch every Spring. He’ll stay until Fall, building his net every evening and waiting for the meal he knows will come. I’m no expert on spider species identification, but it’s always appears to be the same species year after year. It’s always a smaller version that grows to be the same as the one last year.

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While I’m no Arachnologist, our little eight-legged friend is probably last year’s offspring. I had the privilege of seeing all the little ones bursting from their egg sac last year. Their home and ours are one in the same. I get to watch the intricate, complex beauty of this tiny creature every evening. Clarity had returned.

Our hardships and my frustration faded into the darkness of the evening. I could see, and more importantly, see that our difficulties were nothing, that God was still (and always is) faithful. Life may have its difficulties, but grace changes how I see them. Difficulties become opportunities to grow in ways I can’t even imagine.

If a tiny spider ca open a world of grace and heal blindness, how much more can I be a vessel of grace?

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Escape Artists and Neighbors

Life loves to grant opportunities for introspection and growth. Sometimes they come from unexpected, and often, unpleasant places.

Sadie, our Rottweiler/we’re not sure what else, is the happiest dog that has ever graced our home. She’s the smallest of our three rescue pups but has been known to take on a pit bull that made the mistake of jumping into our (more appropriately “her”) backyard. She’s sweet, gentle, and incredibly smart. The “smart” part can sometimes be a problem…

Our little stinker! I can’t stay mad when I see this face…

She recently discovered a space where she can jump the fence into our neighbor’s yard and escape to the front yard. She loves to explore, and our cul-de-sac offers endless opportunities. Our other two dogs, Jameson and Maggie, are bigger and I just assumed she had found a hole somewhere to crawl through. After several attempts to block any small holes she might have found, our neighbor informed me where she was jumping the fence. Our neighbor went on to explain that he didn’t want her in his yard. He has a two-year old daughter and was fearful of Sadie. I dutifully affixed a guard to prevent her from jumping in the same spot.

Did I mention Sadie was incredibly bright? She apparently found another spot. I put her in the house and tried to figure out where she was jumping the fence. It wasn’t long before the White Settlement Police came knocking on my door asking about the “dog problem”.

I’m somewhat ashamed of my initial response. While I was quite friendly to our local law enforcement (who threatened us with “doggie jail”), I wasn’t so gracious thinking about our neighbor. I fantasized all the possible ways I could make his life miserable. After all, we had put up with the chaos coming from their house – the noise, the loud swearing at the kids, and the dog who stayed on our front porch rather than in their backyard (a cute little cuss who ate our cat’s food) and never said a word. They, they, they! Mouthing off to anyone who would listen (sorry Son for interfering with the hockey game), I made for a great self-righteous, pompous victim…

Self-righteous anger doesn’t serve me well. I had time to calm down and go on to bed. Sleep is amazing. I awoke with a far calmer attitude: that is until my morning routine was broken by having to take time to take Sadie out on her leash. Agitation quickly returned.

I finally grabbed my coffee and greeted the morning in my usual way with morning prayer and meditation on the porch. However, thoughts of the previous evening’s police visit kept interfering with my prayers. Suddenly, I remembered Jesus’ words:

“If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend (or in this case, a neighbor) has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matthew 5.23-24 The Message)

I didn’t think it wise to go to my neighbor at six o’clock in the morning. I pondered the situation further. I began to look at the incident from God’s perspective, forcing me to look inward rather than outward toward my neighbor. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with what I found.

A little back story is in order…

We live in a well-kept, older working-class neighborhood. Most of our neighbors have lived here for years. They are either retired military or retired Lockheed Martin employees. The only time children are playing outside is when grandkids (or great-grandkids) come to visit, so it tends to be quiet.

The neighborhood demographics are changing. There’s far more diversity even in the few years we’ve been here. There’s more younger people, families, and racially and culturally diverse residents. Several of the older residents on the block have passed away over the last couple of years. Their children, who already have places of their own, usually put the homes up for sale. The housing market is tight in our area, so a couple of the houses have been purchased by investors to either “flip” or keep as rental properties. There’s far more diversity even in the few years we’ve been here.

The house next door is one such property. It’s always been bit more run down than other homes on the block. It’s been bought and sold a couple of time in the last year and a half. The first owners did little in the way of improvements so when the present owners began working hard to bring it up to current building code, we were thrilled.

New Neighbors…

We watched with a degree of trepidation as the new family moved in next door. They were loud and seemed to have a hundred people helping them. After they settled in, we learned all the “helpers” were family members. It turned out they had ten children and one on the way. So much for our quiet little cul-de-sac!

The solitude of my evening porch time has often been broken since they arrived; by the younger one’s screaming and crying and the parents yelling at them with a variety of swearing and threats. The two and three-year-old kids have repeatedly been found walking around the block without parental supervision (or clothes). The older ones often block the street playing basketball daring neighbor’s vehicles to interrupt them. It goes without saying that our new neighbors are difficult to live with. No wonder I felt justified in my anger about the dog incident.

Unfortunately, justification only goes so far. It’s a great substitute for reality. Was I mad because they called the cops on my dog or was it because I couldn’t stop Sadie from getting out? Who was I upset with? What was I afraid of? It always seems to come down to fear.

The questioning began growing deeper and deeper. The guy had told me he was concerned about his two-year old. I know Sadie wouldn’t hurt a fly, but does he?  Could I not see he had a point? The deeper I looked inside the less I could point fingers at him. I hate it when that happens!

Shifting Perspectives

One of my favorite prayers is the “Saint Francis Prayer”, especially when the line asking to “understand, rather than be understood”. It’s amazing to me how quickly I forget it when things don’t go my way. While I’m grateful my perception, my thoughts, and my actions are less self-centered than they used to be, I still have days when the world just needs to “do as I say”. Father may know best. I do not.

I probably won’t be running next door and apologize for my ill thoughts. Thank God for the pause button between my thoughts and my actions. I tend to re-act slower and think a bit more before acting these days. I don’t appear to step on as many toes and quite frankly, making amends and corrective action is not on my favorite list of things to do. As my friend Jim used to say, “Crow is best eaten fresh…”

What I will do is pray to “understand, rather than be understood” and stay here on the porch enjoying my morning coffee. It’s funny how much easier it is to bask in the peace and solitude that follows a bit of understanding…

Would you call the “Doggie Police”?
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Good Friday

Thoughts From the Porch: The wind is a bit frisk this morning, but all is well on the porch. It’s still too wet to work on the farm so I’m enjoying the quiet solitude of our little cul-de-sac and my second pot of coffee.

Today is Good Friday. I’ve always been curious how it came to be called “Good” Friday. I get the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion led to a Good Sunday (Easter), but there’s really nothing good about hanging someone on a cross. Maybe Christians would do well to change their iconography for the cross to a stone. I’d rather constantly remember the resurrection than a barbaric and humiliating form of capital punishment. I want to be a resurrection disciple.

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Those who have experienced God’s grace on a deep level tend to be aware of the price paid for their redemption. They know spiritual death. They know what the proverbial “end of the rope” is. They know what it’s like to have nowhere and no human being to turn to. They know that accepting God’s grace is the only thing that will bring us back to life and there’s no doubt how costly that grace was and is. They eagerly cling to Easter and resurrection.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to stay stuck on the crucifixion, to live in the past, and forget that the real joy in life comes from the resurrection. God did, and does, the impossible. He often does for us what we cannot, and sometimes will not, do for ourselves. That’s where the real power lies. Not in the cross, but in the rolled-away stone…

“I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of”. John 10.10 (The Message)

Today, I’m living in the present, enjoying the resurrected life I’ve been given…

“Yes, all the things I thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant”. Phillipians 3.8 (The Message)

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Finding Your “Why”: Part Two

I spent last Friday morning at the farm with a prospective donor. We talked about the mission and purpose of Opal’s Farm for over an hour. The farm is about more than simply providing access for fresh produce to a largely forgotten neighborhood. It’s about building a better Fort Worth and serving our community. While that’s a worthy mission, the means by which we accomplish that mission is the tangible “goods” that the local community receives. What makes Opal’s Farm so special and why should you be a part of it? This is the second reason “why”.

Last Friday, we talked about “dirt therapy” and the physical and emotional well-being that comes from working the soil. The sense of community, of connection, and the increased physical activity shared with others of like mind is amazing. Even though that’s reason enough for anyone to come out and work or support the farm, your “why” might be as simple as providing food for your neighbors.

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When I was talking to our prospective donor the other day, I mentioned that Ms. Opal had been late for a dinner meeting the evening before because she had to drive a long way to get lettuce for the salad. He looked at me with a bit of confusion, “Why couldn’t she go to a store around here?”, he asked.

I told him that there was no store around here. The closest one was several miles south of the neighborhood. I explained to him that United Riverside, our neighborhood, is a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as anyplace were access to fresh, healthy food is more than one mile away. He was a bit shocked that there were over forty food deserts listed in Tarrant County alone.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. Everyone touts the great economy and growth Fort Worth has experienced over the last few years. Politicians and business leaders point to the success Fort Worth and the growing economy has had. We often don’t hear the grim statistics and the reality for many of our neighbors. I’ve thrown them out there many times before, but statistics are often abstract and overwhelming.

In Tarrant County, one in four children go to bed hungry each night. One in four, 25%! For blacks and Latinos, the number is even more staggering – one in three children face hunger. That’s 33% of kids right here in Tarrant County!

What can you do about it? Now that you know the numbers it’s overwhelming. When a problem is of a scale that’s overwhelming it can foster inaction. It’s easy to say, “I can’t help everybody” and so no one gets help.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Mother Teresa. It’s at the bottom of every email I send out. It says, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” We do what we can, and Opal’s Farm provides the “why”. Through a simple farm we begin tackling the issues of food success and food scarcity. We can’t feed all of Fort Worth, but we can bring health and vitality to a neighborhood through each season’s harvest. You have to start somewhere…

Maybe you’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Maybe you feel like you don’t make a difference. Maybe, just maybe, you do. Helping at Opal’s Farm, whether by donating or volunteering is the first step. It’s something tangible.

Mother Teresa said something else that always comes to mind, too. She said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” I’m no math genius but I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of small acts with great love constitutes a big thing.

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If you’re wanting to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of others please consider your donation or volunteer at Opal’s Farm. If you’re still not sure, I’ll give you another reason “why” tomorrow…

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Kids…

Thoughts From the Porch: Saturday was Margaret’s birthday. Yesterday was my oldest son’s birthday. April is a good month! I pay little attention to the whole horoscope thing, but I sometimes wonder why my life is filled with so many Aries signs. Could be something to it but who knows?

Sitting on the porch this morning, enjoying the sunrise, I thought back to the day each of my boys were born. My memory isn’t so great anymore. I can’t tell you specifics like the weather and surroundings, unless of course it’s my youngest son. His birth was rather unforgettable. He decided to make his appearance on the very day a hundred-year blizzard hit Denver in 1982. We went to the hospital in a Jeep Wagoneer someone had volunteered to haul the paramedics since the ambulances couldn’t get around. The snow was so deep it took a week to dig out. You don’t forget something like that.

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Adrian, my older one, had the misfortune to be born in Dallas (that’s the only hospital that honored our insurance). We were concerned that friends and family wouldn’t recognize him as a native Texan and hence, his birthright. We’re not real sure Dallas is really part of Texas. However, he overcame that disability in quick fashion. After much legal (and family) wrangling, his birth certificate mandates his Texas citizenship…

The boys are as different as night and day, and the differences were apparent early on. The standing joke is that Adrian popped out of the birth canal asking if he could rest and get something to eat if that was no problem. He was laid back and easygoing, even as a baby. His brother, however, was the complete opposite. When he made his appearance almost two years later, he instantly demanded to be fed and have the nursery redone to suit his tastes. Anyone who knows them today will see the humor in that.

A father sees their children differently than the rest of the world sees them. Fathers lack objectivity in the perception of their kids: every one of them has the best kids in the world. That’s the way it should be. I don’t want to start an argument with anyone. Please know that since I have the best kids in the world, that doesn’t mean you don’t. Most of us have a perception problem when it comes to our children and despite what our culture tells us, it’s not a competition.

I got to spend some time with Adrian yesterday. That’s two weekends in a row and that’s a miracle of biblical proportions. He works a lot and his schedule rarely fits mine. Our times together are few and much farther between than I like. He recently started dating a young lady who is far more attractive and interesting than his old man. I appreciate that she receives more attention than I do. I’d probably be a bit worried if it were otherwise…

Thank you, Son for a great weekend. I hope you enjoyed your birthday. I know I did. Funny thing is though, I received the birthday gift – getting to spend time with you.

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Honor Your Wife…

Thoughts From the Porch: A line of thunderstorms is knocking on our door this morning. The wind, called an outflow boundary, is the precursor to the storm that will barge in any second. Jamison the Farm Dog is huddled beneath my feet, making writing difficult by distancing my fingers from the keyboard. Thunderstorms are anathema to him. He pants and paces or hides under my desk to escape the noise. All I can do is reassure him we’ve got it taken care of and we’d never let anything harm our Jameson.

Today is Margaret’s birthday. Please join me in wishing my beautiful wife a very happy birthday. I think of myself as one of the most blessed men in the world. It can’t be easy being married to me, although Margaret tells me constantly that I’m not difficult. Some days I’m not so sure. I find myself preoccupied with the daily goings-on of life and fail to stop and enjoy the company of the best woman I know.

Sometimes I’ll be out and hear other people talk about their difficulty in relationships. It makes me want to run home and kiss my wife and tell her how much I love her. I realize what a gift she is in my life. Our marriage isn’t perfect by any means. We each have our little idiosyncrasies that cause friction. I’m acutely aware of mine, but to be honest, I can’t think of any of Margaret’s. I’m sure they are present. They all seem to fade away when I’m with her.

I used to think that wasn’t normal, that our relationship was too comfortable. I’d hear others speak of their struggles in their marriage or cohabitation. People would talk about how much work their relationship. Everyone talked about “working” out their marriage. Maybe we were doing something wrong because, quite frankly, I can count on less than one hand the number of issues we’ve had to deal with over the years. I’m sure that they each centered around miscommunication or misunderstanding.

My Favorite Picture!

I used to believe we were an anomaly, a blip on the screen that couldn’t be explained. I thought there was no way anyone would believe how good our marriage was (and there may not be…). However, I’ve observed the marriages of our friends and acquaintances, and I’ve seen first hand we’re not so different after all.

There seems to be one or two constants throughout them all. The first one is the one my friend Jim told me about. Many years ago, he asked me if I knew what honor was. The Good Book says to “honor your wife”. What does it mean? I offered the proper dictionary definition and he laughed. He said that was nice but didn’t come close. The real definition was… and he drew in a quick, deep breath. I waited patiently for him to add his definition, but he just sat there, silent.

“Come on Jim. What’s your definition of honor?”

He again inhaled sharply, “h-h-h-h-h” and fell silent. I was beginning to get a bit perturbed and asked again to which he gave the same reply. Now I was ticked off.

I guess he sensed my aggravation because he looked me square in the eye, took another deep breath, and said “that’s what honor is”.

I sat there a bit perplexed. He went on to explain that honor was seeing your wife walk in the room and she takes your breath away. It wasn’t until years later that I really understood what he meant.

Fast forward to March 2nd, 2013 and Jim’s definition of honor became crystal clear. I was standing in front of many family and friends next to my Best Man, Edgar, with my brother Craig, the pastor for the day. Everyone stood and turned to watch Margaret start her walk down the aisle. She was radiant in her wedding dress, her face beaming. I inhaled sharply and deeply. She took my breath away…

Fast forward again to April 6th, 2019. Margaret walks in the room and she still takes my breath away. I can’t believe I am married to such an incredible woman. I want to honor her in every way possible. What surprises me is the honor she bestows on me. She makes me a better man.

I’m no marriage counselor but what I know for certain is that honoring my wife is easy. As a result, our marriage is easy as well. If we are an anomaly, then so be it. I could spend the rest of my life being different…

So, I wish my wife an unbelievably Happy Birthday. I look forward to sharing many more. I’m not confused my dear – you truly are “my better side” (I hate “half” as we were complete when we joined together) and my best friend. Today I honor you and wish for you a beautiful, joy-filled birthday!