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It Really is a Wonderful Life

Thoughts from the Porch

Dropping in at our local big box retailer this weekend reminded me the Christmas season has begun in earnest. Despite the media prophecies of retail’s slow, painful death it was readily apparent that not everyone has switched to online shopping.

I try to avoid such visits any time of year but especially at Christmas time. They’re a reminder of all things negative about the Holidays: crowded stores, pushy and frustrated shoppers, rampant consumerism – the list goes on. In a season of giving, faith, and family I have a difficult time with all the hurried rudeness, impatience, and meltdown tantrums by parents and children alike.

That being said…

I got cover crops in at Opal’s Farm before the cold front and accompanying rain passed through yesterday. The rain meant I would have all day to catch-up on emails, callbacks, and write. All was going according to plan when I made a grave mistake. I walked through the living room to go out to my truck for a moment my wife was watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It was at the point in the movie where Jimmy Stewart’s character, a suicidal George Bailey, jumps off the bridge only to be rescued by his guardian angel, Clarence.

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I won’t bore you with a retelling of the story. Who in the world hasn’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” anyway? It’s one of my all-time favorites. One can never see it too often. Suffice to say that all my plans immediately fell to the wayside. I sat down in the chair and didn’t get up until the end of the movie. I mentioned this mistake to my friend Charlie. He reminded me that it wasn’t a mistake, but time well spent…

In the movie, as in every good story, calamity strikes, and George Bailey is backed into a corner. He cries out, “I wish I’d never have been born”. I can relate. I’ve been there: that dark place where the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is a bullet train locomotive closing fast. Everything and everyone would be better off if I weren’t here. In George Bailey’s case (and mine) divine intervention says otherwise…

My favorite part of the film is when Clarence ends his “never been born” vision and an ecstatic George runs through town shouting Merry Christmas to people and buildings alike. He’s part of life once again and never has he been so grateful for his wonderful life. He knows that a warrant has been issued for his arrest. He doesn’t care. Sounds like surrender to me. All I want is to live. My life is incredible no matter what happens

His surrender is met by a myriad of friends and family who come together to save him from disaster and the arrest warrant. By the time the bell rings (and Clarence gets his wings) and everyone breaks out in a joyful rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” I’m bawling like a baby (at least on the inside – I still don’t like to cry in front of people. It’s that old “guy” thing…). As one whose been rescued from a life of desperation and degradation I am flooded with gratitude no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie.

The Never Ending Story

Maybe that’s why “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a Christmas tradition for so many people. Like Christmas itself, it shines a ray of light, a ray of hope, into an oft dark world. It reminds us that, while the war may not be over, hang in there because good will ultimately triumph. That’s the general theme in any good story. God has been telling and retelling that story throughout human history. Every writer, every good storyteller, simply puts a different spin on the story He’s been writing for eternity. It makes since to me since we were created in His image.

Sometimes frustration with the consumer culture that surrounds Christmas gets in the way. Sometimes I simply to hear another retelling of the eternal story. I get back on track. I remember the “greatest story ever told”. Suddenly, Christmas becomes alive again. God came down to live with us. He loves us and sent a reminder that a new heaven and a new earth is not only possible, but certain. Love will win out, and, as the Apostle John reminds us, what is God but love?

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As I sit here at my trusty old roll top desk this morning I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude. The creator of the universe came down as one of us! He lived among us and showed us what it is to truly love one another. He showed us that a new way was possible. He reminded us that Abba hears our cries even when we think He doesn’t. Above all, He reminds us that the story has already been written so we can enjoy life and enjoy abundantly. It really is a wonderful life I have today.

I’m going back to the big box store later. I don’t know if the craziness has changed but my perspective has. Christmas has a way of doing that, especially when I remember what Christmas truly means.

“Emmanuel – God with us…”

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“The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” – Greta Thunberg

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Give a Wave and Change the World

Thoughts From the Porch

Wednesday was a long day. It was like any day really, but especially long when one spends it driving around DFW. Margaret is unable to get in my truck since it sits too high. We have been fortunate to use our kid’s car for her doctor appointments and such. It’s a KIA and sits low enough for Margaret to be able to get in and out. I’m not complaining mind you, but while a small car is great for her it’s not so great for me.

I’ve driven a pick-up truck for most of the last 30 years. In fact, I can’t remember the last car I owned. A ¾ ton truck is perfect for a guy who’s 6’3” and weighs in at 230 pounds. Heck, I even have enough head room for my beat-up old farm hat on. I like sitting above most of the other drivers. There’s a sense of security in that. You know, the ‘above the fray’ kind of thing.

Change doesn’t typically disturb me too much, but switching to a 2-door sub-compact car? It’s a bit like moving from a big rig to a go-cart. However, I’m grateful I still have the flexibility to fold and unfold myself in and out. Once I’m in it’s not so bad…

The other drawback in using our kid’s car is that I make the sixty-mile roundtrip twice a day to drop them off at work and pick them up. I haven’t driven in rush hour traffic in a long time. The farm is only fifteen minutes from the house: just hop on the freeway and there’s one stoplight between here and there. Any other time I work from home.

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It’s not quite the same when you commute in a DFW rush hour and the closer you get to Dallas the worse traffic gets. It starts slowing on the east side of Fort Worth and by Arlington and Highway 360 it’s stop-and-go. That’s aggravating enough but something transpires once you cross the Dallas County line. Apparently, it’s a black hole of sorts that sucks any common courtesy and driving ability out the window.

I think I understand why our kid goes to bed so early. I was worn out after four hours of stop-and-go driving. If I had to do that daily my spirituality would fade into one-fingered salutes, horn honking, and yelling. I understand road rage much better, although shooting at someone is still a bit extreme for me…

After my dad was transferred to Colorado, our family returned to Fort Worth a couple of times a year. Every time I crossed the Texas state line, I was greeted by “Welcome to Texas” and beneath it was the line “Drive Friendly”. As we travelled up and down Highway 287, slower travelers would pull over to let us pass. We would do likewise for those who came up in our rear-view mirror. Once past, my father would raise his hand and wave as a thank you to the driver behind us.

If we were on a two-lane country road, each driver would raise a hand in a “howdy” to each other as they passed. People would hang back to let you merge on the freeway. When I came of driving age, I was taught that courtesy was as much a part of driving as the ability to handle a vehicle safely.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Fort Worth is its small town feel and friendliness. Common courtesy was paramount in social situations with others. Driving was a prime example. One spends a lot of time on the road living here. Even rush hour, albeit less tedious and congested than our neighbor to the east, was reasonably friendly. At least it was…

I’m quite willing to acknowledge that my perceptions may have become a bit nostalgic as I’ve grown older. The demographics of Fort Worth have changed. North Texas has grown faster than the infrastructure for America’s 16th largest city. Frustrations abound when construction delays are constant. Driving is a microcosm for what’s happening around us. As driving has become more frustrating and common courtesy less common, so too has the society around us.

All of this started me thinking. What if everyone could slow down, take a deep breath, and offer a friendly hand wave when someone lets you in on the freeway? What if you take a moment to acknowledge your neighbor with a hand wave as you drive down your neighborhood street? What if you wave an apology to the guy you just cut-off by accident?

I don’t know. Perhaps I’m a dreamer, but I think one little hand wave could change the world (or at least my little part of it!). When I exercise common courtesy on the way to the store, I’m more likely to hold the door for the person coming in or out. They say thank you and I’m more likely to be patient with that slower driver in front of me. I let that guy in on the freeway or simply wave a thank you to the person that let me in.

That simple hand wave set of a chain reaction of “niceness”. I’m not as stressed on the road. I become just a bit more relaxed. I’m nicer to the next person I meet. I smile more. In turn, maybe they’re a bit nicer to the next driver, the next store clerk, or the next coworker. In turn, who knows? Maybe world peace…

I’m so sure a simple way is the key I believe it could even change our neighbors to the east. Why not give it a try…

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Time to Celebrate

Thoughts From the Porch

I came home from my Sunday morning meeting and spent a long time lost in thought. Today is a special day of celebration in my life: probably more important than all the other holidays combined. I reflected on the friends who made it all possible. I cannot begin to come close to expressing my love and appreciation for them. You see, fourteen years ago I surrendered to God’s infinite grace and began an incredible, mystical journey with these people. Life began again. Dreams became. Miracles happened. In fact, I’ve come to depend on them. I’m living proof. I celebrate fourteen years free from the bonds of addiction, selfishness and self-obsession.

I don’t often speak of my recovery on social media. For most of my life I’ve been an example of what NOT to do. I wouldn’t want anyone to judge the recovery process by my actions. I chose a program of recovery that taught me how to rely on the God of my understanding to break the cycle of addiction, to correct my oft repeated shortcomings, and be of use to others. It has worked for me for a while now.

It gave me a relationship with God that grows more intimate each day. It offered me a new set of glasses through which I see the world as God would have me see His creation (most of the time at least). Where there only existed failure, depression, and endless desperation before, my life is filled with light and infinite possibility. I never dreamt that life could be this way. I know what joy and freedom are today. I’m recovering the life God intended for daily. Pretty damned amazing if you ask me…

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I thought of my friend and mentor, Jim, who walked alongside me throughout much of the journey. He followed an eternal path almost two years ago. Not a day goes by that his voice doesn’t speak to me, either in my head or through my friends. One friend in particular, Edgar, frequently quotes “Jimisms”. He always seems to know when they’re truly needed.

I thought about my brother Craig who opened his home when I needed it most. I spent five years sitting in his woodshop, sharing coffee, prayer, and spirit. No man is more blessed than me. I always wanted a brother. I had to wait fifty years to get one!

Perhaps most of, I thought about the woman in the next room who shares life with me; the woman that God (and recovery) gave me. Most of you know my wife Margaret. Most of you know Margaret broke her leg a few weeks ago. It’s been non-weight bearing and will be for several more weeks. It has been my honor and privilege to be her legs these last few weeks; to bring coffee, to help her to the chair, and push her wheelchair. Recovery taught me what it means to love someone else, to be in a relationship with God and the love of my life. It made it easy to exchange vows and really mean it. She is the light of my life and brings me joy on this walk together.

Blessed more than I deserve

I would be remiss if I failed to tell you how important each of you are in my life. I once told my friend Rusty that I could finally count my true friends on more than one hand. He told me I was blessed: most people can’t say that. From a life of isolation and loneliness I been brought into a life that almost feels too full at times. I somehow make room for it though. When I don’t God helps me make it bigger.

Above all, I know all is grace. I don’t deserve any of the blessings I enjoy today. I’m unbelievably thankful I didn’t get what I deserve – clean or using. What I received was an endless supply of love and grace instead. As my brother Craig reminds me, “God is especially fond of me” (and you, too!).

One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received is waking up each day to a new and bright world full of hope and possibilities no matter what the newspaper (does anybody still read those?) may say. I get to “live creatively” as the Apostle Paul would say.

Thank you for being a part of this wonderful journey…

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Bittersweet Moments

Down on the Farm: August is a busy month at Opal’s Farm. The Texas summer reaches its apex in August and the Spring garden crops are beginning to peter out. The summer squashes have about run their course and the purple-hulled and black-eye peas are slowing in the heat. We’ve been extremely blessed this year to have only had seven one hundred-degree days. The average number by this time of year is eighteen. We’re very careful in the heat: slow down, drink lots of water, and take more frequent breaks in the shade of our only tree. When the “feels like” temperature is in the triple digits it’s better to be safe than sorry. Heat stroke is no joke!

The high temperatures haven’t deterred our volunteers. A huge shout out to Harrison, Chuck, Becca, and of course, Brendan for helping with harvesting and helping plant the new Fall crops. As we transition to our fall planting there are beds to be cleaned out, prepared, and seeded with all the great veggies that come in the Fall. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love and appreciate our volunteers and fellow “farmers”.

That’s why it’s difficult to write today’s blog post. Many of you know one of our volunteers (and my trusted assistant), Brendan O’Connell. Brendan has been with Opal’s Farm since we began building the first beds and planting the first seeds. Not only has he put countless hours of physical labor into the farm, he’s also shared ideas and opened doors that have made our first growing season a success.

When Brendan contacted me about volunteering back in March, I had no idea how important he would become to Opal’s Farm or how much I would come to value his input, appreciate his hard work, and depend on him. For the first four months, it was Brendan who was right in the thick of things whether it was plowing, planting, or marketing.

Our First Cowtown Farmer’s Market

One day he mentioned one day that his school needed a title or job description for his volunteer work at the farm. He wasn’t sure what to put down on the paperwork, and quite honestly, neither was I. “Farmhand” was an understatement. He was far more than another hand. I wasn’t sure what to tell him. Until it dawned on me: he was the farm co-manager! It would be unfair to call him anything else. His sense of commitment and dedication to the mission of Opal’s Farm is indescribable.

Couldn’t have done it without Brendan – getting ready for our first crop!

Unfortunately, I knew his time would come to an end. You see, Brendan leaves next week for the next step in his life at Cornell University. He’ll be stopping by Cowtown Farmer’s Market briefly on Saturday and leaving Tuesday. It’s a bittersweet moment for those of us who’ve come to know Brendan over the last few months. We are extremely happy (and a bit proud) for him and his new adventure, but it’s hard to see him leave (even if we do get to see him at winter break).

Part of me is jealous, Brendan. For those of you who don’t know, Cornell is in Ithaca, New York. Although Brendan will be studying hard, he’ll be enjoying much cooler weather than those of us here at the farm! Moreover, Ithaca has an actual Fall season and with it, the accompanying explosion of color that will awe any good old Fort Worth native.

Winter will be a bit different from Fort Worth (what’s that white stuff called again?), but I’m happy to hear you bought your winter coat online rather than here. There’s not much of a market here for the kind of coats one you’ll need in New York…

Brendan, thank you for everything you’ve done for Opal’s Farm and thank you Mr. and Mrs. O’Connell for sharing your son with us. God’s blessings upon you all. We wish you adventure, happiness, and success in the coming school year. We look forward to seeing you this winter but please know you will be missed and thought of often.

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Spartans and Teamwork

Thoughts from the Porch: Summer is officially here. The summer equinox is in the rear-view mirror. The days will grow shorter though no one will notice (or care) for the next three months. While we normally experience summer drought, this year has kept the rains coming into June. We had another huge thunderstorm last night. It’s the third Sunday in a row for North Texas. I am eternally grateful for the rain as we’re still working on irrigation for the farm. I could do without the straight-line winds though. I’ll be clearing out tree limbs for the next couple of hours…

I had the privilege of attending my first Spartan race this Saturday at AT&T Stadium (Home of the Dallas Cowboys or “Jerryworld” as it’s known locally). I didn’t realize what a big deal a Spartan race is. The fact they were holding it at the stadium should’ve been a clue. There were folks from all over the country racing Saturday. The first competitors started early in the morning and they were still starting racers when I left at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon.

The Second Obstacle – makes me dizzy thinking about it…

My oldest son, Adrian, started running and working out regularly again. Last month he ran his first 5K in twenty years and finished first in his age group. I was proud of him and quite impressed! Saturday he was more concerned about simply finishing and helping other team members than where he placed in the race. I’m far more impressed by his heart than I am by his race time.

Over the first wall…

He formed a team with several other guys that shared the same race coach for the day. Although they hadn’t meet each other before the race, they bonded as a team and helped one another through a grueling race and obstacle course. One of the team members struggled and fell farther behind than the others. Finally, the rest of the team had to press forward, leaving him behind with the team coach. The other members went on to complete the course.

Finished the First One!

Adrian crossed the finish line and we celebrated together. Then he returned to the field to join the rest of his team look for the one runner still on the course. When he entered the field from the punishing run up and down the stairs at AT&T Stadium his team members were there to cheer him on.

Then an amazing thing happened…

The other team members joined him on the course to complete the final obstacles alongside him. It may not seem like a big deal, but understand, these guys had already completed the course. They were tired and sore. Most importantly, they didn’t have to do it. They ran through the remaining three obstacles and crossed the finish line together – as a team!

None of these guys had met before Saturday. The only thing they had in common was the Spartan coach they’d each paid extra for. Still, they became a real team. They were there for each other; the perfect example of sportsmanship.

Running and racing is generally thought of as an individual, not a team, sport. Adrian and his fellows reminded me one more time of the importance of teamwork. No one is left behind and forgotten simply because “I” finished. It’s about finishing together and relying on each other. I truly am my brother’s keeper and not just at a Spartan race…

I will remember Adrian’s example more than I’ll ever remember his race time. Thank you, Son for the reminder of what’s truly important. Individual accomplishments are great, but team accomplishments, what we do together as a community, mean the most. I’m proud of you, Son!

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Always Remember

It’s a brilliant, sunny late Spring day here in North Texas. Soon I’ll head off to Opal’s Farm. It’s been incredibly busy. Our first harvest of French Breakfast Radishes came in. We have about a hundred pounds bundled for sale and another hundreds pounds still to harvest. The beans and peas are in full bloom and squash is getting almost big enough to pick.

I haven’t had a great deal of time to write this last week with all the goings on. This week marked the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion that turned the tide in the Allies favor during World War Two. Those who know me might find it peculiar I’m memorializing warfare. My faith calls me to be a non-violent peacemaker. Still, I know my calling is not shared by everyone and I honor the veterans who fought for their beliefs and each other.

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Tom Brokaw coined the term “the greatest generation” when speaking of my parents peers. As a history student I was always intrigued by the men who fought so gallantly during “The War” as it came to be known. I grew up on the great epic movies about WWII- “Patton”, “The Battle of the Bulge”, Guns of Navarrone”, John Wayne and “The Fighting Seabees” and so forth. I saw “The Great Escape” at the long since demolished Gateway Theater twice a day on three successive Saturday matinees (for 50 cents admission I might add). Steve McQueen was my hero…

Things changed and I grew past the illusions I was taught. After all, “history is written by the victors” and subsequent wars proved to be void of morality. It’s no longer about defense but about gain. War is usually started by men who have never served. They were wealthy or powerful enough to worm their way out of military service. They’re quite content to let your young men fight for their wants while they talk about how patriotic they are; but enough said or I’ll get started…

Still, those WWII vets always held a special place of honor above all others. Perhaps its because of my father and my uncle’s (one of whom died at Anzio, Italy) service. It’s a way I hang onto them as well. They never spoke of their service. They did what they were called to do and now they’re gone, like so many of their generation. I miss them.

There are only 1.7 million WWII vets alive today. Their time is growing short. The “greatest generation” will pass away and become memory. That’s why it’s so important (for me anyway) to cherish the time I’m given with some of the men who served. They’re more likely to share about it today if you ask. I encourage you to ask. Not only will you be riveted to their stories, you’ll pay them honor and respect as well.

This is my small tribute to those men that leapt of the boats at Normandy seventy-five years ago. Thank you for being part of my life and sharing your stories.

“I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said, ‘No, but I served in a company of heroes.'” —Major Richard Winters

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