Friday, July 6, 2018

The End of the Road


This is a Friday morning like no other.  The work this past week has been wonderfully different than the emails, meetings and thought-work of any Monday through Thursday I have known, even the ones spent on vacation.

My daily agenda has been to put about 300 miles of two-lane blacktop behind me. My task list has been shortened to keeping two-wheels spinning below me and absorbing the beauties of Highway 64.

This final day starts in Farmington, NM under a high sky and sunshine.  This is an unexpected treat because rain is predicted.  

The first few miles are forgettable suburban sprawl, but at Shiprock the road turns 90 degrees to the right for a final, spectacular dash west across the Colorado Plateau toward Teec Nos Pos, Arizona and the end of the road.

I’ve seen the Shiprock once before.  Standing on the high ground of Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado, you can see the Shiprock clearly.  It rises 1,583 feet straight out of the New Mexico dirt like a grand, three-mast clipper--an imperial tall ship christened by the hand of God.  

This is Navajo land.  The ancients of the tribe had never seen a clipper ship.  Their name for the Shiprock is TséBit ‘a’ i, which means rock with wings.  Ancient Navajo traditions tell of a time when the Navajo lived on top of the winged rock, and descended only to plant their fields and get water.  One day a huge lightning strike wiped out the trail. The women and children stranded on top of the rock starved to death.  Today no one is permitted to summit the peak, in part for safety reasons, but also because the Navajo do not want the spirits of their ancients disturbed.

The Shiprock is a harbinger of the majestic peaks and towers of the famous Monument Valley, which have been standing for millennia in Utah about 100 miles to the northwest.  Like the towers of Monument Valley, Shiprock is a stone remnant formed in the throat of a massive volcano perhaps 27 million years ago. The rock is breccia, the composite of smaller rocks and minerals fused together by heat into one majestic tower.

The volcano eroded away, but Shiprock stands tall and compelling.  It can be accessed from US 64 via five miles of unpaved road.

At this point Highway 64 shoots straight west toward the mountains of northeast Arizona.  It is quite clear a change in landscape is imminent.  It is as if the state line ahead marks the boundary of another room, designed by a different architect, one with a penchant for odd angles and magenta.

To each side and in my rearview mirrors, New Mexico is tan, dotted with sage and the occasional gray mesa. Ahead of me are jagged reddish rocks and purple peaks.  The mountains are making weather.  Rain is rolling our way.  

I’m flush with the idea that this is it.  This is the end of the journey.  This is the last hour of the last day of a 30-year quest, and I want to soak up every detail.  A 64 West sign looms in the distance.  Is this the last one?  Stop and take a picture.  Take 12 pictures.  Breathe the morning air.  Listen to the wind.  Stare at the curtains of rain covering distant peaks.  Stare at the red desert thirsty for every imminent drop of moisture.  Stare at the parallel lines of the chip and tar highway that narrows and vanishes into the scene.

As the Shiprock disappears over my shoulder, the road seems to fall like a rollercoaster, perhaps a thousand feet or more downhill.  I feel myself clutching the Kawasaki tighter as I start the descent.  This is part of the East Defiance Monocline, an ancient fold in the earth caused by a massive uplift that created the nearby Corrizo Mountains.  For a second or two the sensation feels like riding down the side of a bowl of broken glass. I’m falling fast and the view ahead is all points and angles.

On either side of the road, looming, eroded, sandstone rocks stand like sentries of a new land.  At the bottom is the village of Beclabito, home to about 300 Navajo citizens.  I see a few rusted buildings and earth-moving machines, remnants apparently of some long-closed mining operation, perhaps a uranium mine.  This area was the epicenter of a cold-war uranium boom back in the Fifties.  People still live here, but they don’t seem to work here.  I wonder as I pass how anyone makes a living.

Past Beclabito the road turns northwest toward the Four Corners and--I can really feel it now--the end of the road.

My heart is filled with conflicting emotions.  I’m equal parts joy, gratitude, satisfaction and grief. Joy for the adventure of it all. Gratitude for the time, resources and health to pull it off.  Satisfaction for a dream fulfilled.  And grief? Grief for a dream coming to an end.

My feeling is most like a funeral for an aging, ailing friend.  You’ve long known the end is coming, and that has provided you time to express your love and admiration, to reminisce fondly, and to share a few last smiles.  But at the end of it all, you still grieve what’s no longer there.

It’s clear Arizona does not care much about its little portion of Highway 64.  The state line is marked only by a small sign and gravel pull-out.  We stop for a photo so briefly we don’t remove our helmets.  Back quickly on the bikes we sprint about six miles to Teec Nos Pos and a tall highway marker bearing the message we travelled 2,336 miles to read.  End 64.

Teec Nos Pos is Navajo for round tree.  We see nothing that fits that description.  There is a scruffy trading post and some type of machine shop.  Two men at the shop taking a smoke break seem amused by Raymond and me hugging each other and taking selfies on the shoulder of their road.  We have to stoop and lean comically to get the End 64 sign in our background.  

Raymond and I thank and congratulate each other, call our wives, and post a photo to Facebook.  We take one good, long, last look around, then get back on our bikes to ride a road no longer named U.S. 64.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

That's Entertainment, 2018


It's Saturday night; what to do with our time?
We have five hours to rest and unwind,
We need entertainment to lift up our spirits!
You got a suggestion? I’m ready to hear it.

Let’s see a movie!  What will it be?
Paddington, Thor or Pitch Perfect 3?
Widescreen or IMAX or maybe 3D?
Or stop by the Red Box for a cheap DVD?

We’ve seen all of these, let’s check out TV.
With 400 channels there’s something to see.
Click-No-Click-No-Click--who would-a thunk?
With 400 channels there’s nothing but junk?

How about HBO, Cinemax, Starz or Showtime?
Or stream something new from Amazon Prime.
On Demand, Apple, or Playstation Vue?
Or YouTube, Netflix, Sling or Hulu?

We could play a game, on X-Box or Wii,
We’ve got Nintendo, GameFly and our old PS3.
That cool fighting game once cost us big bucks,
And we could play it again, but we lost the nunchucks.

We could listen to music on Alexa or iTunes,
On cool wireless speakers that fill up our rooms!
We’ve got thousands of songs that cost 99 cents.
And enough compact discs to fill up a tent.

We’ve got videos, too, that cost 12-99,
And we’ve got quite a few, and we watched them one time,
We could stream our PC to our Wi-Fi TV,
But I don’t know how; the TV’s smarter than me.

Let’s just relax and read a good book,
We’ve got all the best sellers on Kindle and Nook,
We’ve got some on iPad, some soft-back, some hard,
And enough magazines to cover the yard.

But first let’s check Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest,
There’s usually something there of great interest,
Like dancing Chihuahuas, or nice juicy tidbits,
About Hillary, Trump or some other nitwits.

Alas, our beautiful evening has waned,
As we wondered how best to be entertained.
Reality strikes like a dissonant chord,
Too much entertainment makes us all too-much bored. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Top Stories of 2017

I write these annual reviews of personalized news primarily for myself and my family.  It anyone else takes pleasure or meaning from it, that's just fine.  Thanks for your interest.

On this New Year’s Day, as I think about the year just past, the words of an old Joni Mitchell song float through my head.

And the seasons, they go round and round,
And the painted ponies go up and down.
We’re riding on the carousel of time.
We can’t return we can only look behind from where we came,
And go round and round and round in the circle game.

In so many ways this past year feels like yet another spin on the wheel, not that much different from the cycles before it.  The perception of movement.  The hum of routine.  The little highs and lows that determine my response to Janice’s daily inquiry—how was your day?

Yet the carousel is constantly changing.  Minutely, imperceptibly, the bearings on which the giant wheel turns are wearing out.  Beneath the happy clamor of the calliope, the wheel sometimes groans with age.  The discerning ear can hear the faint moan behind the melody.   This wheel will not turn forever.

Janice and I Get Medicare Cards


Yes, my beautiful bride and I turned 65.  Somehow I’ve turned grayer in the process while Janice has turned more blonde.  I’m not complaining.

In our American culture there is supposed to be something meaningful about the 65th birthday.  It certainly was meaningful to the U.S. Postal Service, who for many months packed our mailbox with a daily dump of promotional letters and brochures selling Medicare plans, Medicare counsel, retirement planning, investment counsel and European river cruises.  No exaggeration--if we had kept every piece of mail, we could have filled a small bedroom.

In the end, in case you are wondering, we bought none of it.  I continue to work and drag down the actuarial rating of my employer-sponsored health plan.  Thank you Johnson Group.  I appreciate you sticking with me another year.

Highway 64

Over 30 years ago I hatched a plan to ride the 2,336-mile length of U.S. Highway 64 from Whalebone Junction, NC to Teec Nos Pos, AZ before age 65.  I almost met that deadline, initiating the first half of the trip while I was still 64 and finishing up a few weeks after my birthday.

The trip was epic, everything I dreamed it would be.  My great friend Raymond Clark and I rode over 4,000 total miles through some of God’s most spectacular land.

Some of Highway 64, particularly the eastern North Carolina section, has become virtual interstate.  But much of it remains pretty much as planned by highway engineers back in the 1920s when it was commissioned along with its glitzier cousin, U.S. 66. 

Most of Route 66 does not exist anymore, but Highway 64 remains intact.  It runs within a quarter mile of my house, so the East 64 and West 64 signs call to me almost every day.  I want to ride it again. 



The photo shown here is to me, the quintessential image of the trip.  Darkening mountains flank a grassy valley that stretches endlessly toward the setting sun.  And a road runs through it.

Miracles

While on the road west, I received disturbing news.  Janice’s brother John had a heart attack while riding his bicycle at Fall Creek Falls State Park.  It turns out his heart went into ventricular fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that causes death unless there is almost immediate resuscitation.

That’s where the miracle happened.  John collapsed within the view of a campground crowded by a Seventh Day Adventist Church retreat. Included in the group were several cardiac nurses who started CPR quickly and continued it for at least 15 minutes. Then a park ranger came along with a portable defibrillator in his truck.  A LIFE FORCE helicopter landed and carried John to Erlanger in Chattanooga where, within a matter of hours, he was not only alive, but cracking jokes.

John is a long-distance bike rider, and for most of his 30-mile ride that day he was in isolated areas.  If his attack had occurred at any other spot on his route other than by that particular campground, he would not have survived.  The hand of God is a beautiful mystery.

Something similar happened to my friend Charlie Rollins, whose heart went into fibrillation while mountain biking near the Virginia/North Carolina border, miles from any paved roads.  Charlie often rides alone, but this time his son and daughter-in-law were there to start CPR.  He survived and recovered enough to out-fish me on Laurel Creek near Abingdon VA just a few months later.

We can’t understand why some people die and some do not.  We can understand that all life is a gift of God that is renewed day-by-day, hour-by-hour.  I am grateful for the gifts God gave to John and Charlie.

The Fab Five

Our quiver of grandchildren now includes five.  The year has been punctuated with sweet times with each of them.  And like most sweet things, these moments leave us wanting more.


I’m grateful for ease of travel, and also for digital photos and videos, Instagram and Facebook, which allow us to see these beautiful, growing children almost every day.  I think about earlier generations of grandparents who had only the occasional black and white photos in the mail, and maybe an annual visit to keep connected with their extended families.  I don’t want to take for granted the easy familiarity we enjoy.

Increasingly, I appreciate the differences between these five young characters.  Sam—the oldest—is driven to excel, especially at his newfound passion of basketball.  He is a 10-year-old gym rat with inexhaustible energy.  He performs under pressure.  He displays a quiet courage.

Charlie is the budding artisan—a builder like his father.  We have a great picture of Charlie standing on the dining room table beside a massive tower he built out of his new school supplies.  It’s worth a thousand words.

Oliver is our poet and artist.  His imagination is always alight.  He reads and sings and paints and writes.  Oliver draws custom bookmarks for each of his books.  I love that.

August is the comedian.  You can’t spend two minutes with that kid without laughing.  His smile is brighter than his hair.  His love of life is innate and infectious. 

And Pen is our belle of the ball.  She is pretty and petite.  She is quiet and content, especially when in the arms of her mama.  When her feet finally hit the ground, I’m certain they will be lighter than air.

Janice and I are so blessed by these young miracles, and we pray for them every day.

Oh, and we are also blessed by their parents.  Lesley and Daniel, Whit and Sarah, we pray for you every day, too.

A Daughter’s Dominion

On the other end of the age spectrum, Janice’s mother turned 91 this past year.  She also turned increasingly infirm and less able to live on her own.

I greatly admire that way Janice has cared for her mother these past years.  She takes her responsibility personally.  She struggles to find the balance of being there for her mother, for me, for her children and grandchildren, for her friends and her church, and then keeping something in reserve for herself.  It is hard.

Early in the year Janice resolved to find the right assisted living for her mother, and after a lot of research she found Dominion Senior Living, a new, small, faith-based facility in Hixson.  Her choice was good.  The staff at Dominion is great.  They fulfill their promises.  They show compassion and connection with all their residents.

Dealing with an aging parent is hard for Janice, her brother John, and his wife Gale, and they all are rising to the challenge.  But let’s be honest—the greatest burden falls on the daughters.  Her mother’s frequent confusion and early morning calls are difficult, but Janice responds with grace and patience. 

Janice, I love the way you love others.

Operation Snowmen

Back in 2013 I hatched the Operation Snowmen idea—an annual ski trip for a circle of guys from church.  Since then we’ve skied Keystone, Copper Mountain, Vail/Beaver Creek, Jackson Hole and--in 2017--Park City, Utah.

This past year had a father and son flavor as several of the guys brought along teenage sons.  It was a great time in great snow.  If you are looking for a good family ski option, Park City is an excellent choice.


A trip to Park City means you have the option to ski Deer Valley, which I recommend for at least one day.  Deer Valley is a bit more sophisticated.  It does not allow snowboards at all.  All its runs are groomed daily.  The food in the slope-side restaurants is practically five-star.

But the best thing about Deer Valley is the restrooms.  Ski resort men’s rooms are usually pits of misery.  I guess it’s difficult for the male species to take aim through four layers of Gore Tex and polypropylene while balanced on ski boots.

The men’s rooms at Deer Valley, or at least the one I found, are like spas.  Private water closets. Spotless marble. Music. A uniformed attendant.  It was better than taking a leak at the Masters.

Anyway, I’ve grown to genuinely love and appreciate the Snowmen.  Next stop, Lord willing, a return to Copper Mountain.

Chattanooga Institute for Faith and Work

Clark Taylor, a long-time friend and motorcycle companion, sort of retired this past year after a long and successful career as a healthcare administrator.  I write “sort of” because Clark immediately threw himself into a new venture focused on faith and work.

Clark was gracious enough to invite me to tag along as a cofounder of a new non-profit organization, the Chattanooga Institute for Faith and Work.  Our mission is to provide educational programming and counseling that helps men and women discover the important connections between everyday work and faith in Christ.  I confess that Clark is doing the heavy lifting so far, and I appreciate him for that.

In 2017 we launched our website and organized some early programming.  In 2018 we plan to do a lot more.  If anyone is interested in learning more, check out CIFW on Facebook or go to www.chattfaithandwork.org.

The Eclipse

Maybe you heard about it.  It was in all the papers.  It was awesome.

Round and Round, Up and Down

There are so many people and events that were important to me during the circle game of 2017.  I am especially grateful to have reconnected at least a little bit with Cliff, my brother.  This is an answer to prayer. 

I am grateful for my late Aunt Emme and my uncle Pat.  The Lord knows why.

Janice and I spent a wonderful week with dear friends Raymond and Jill at Cape San Blas, a scruffy homage to the way Florida used to be.  If you want to experience it, act fast.  The real estate developers are closing in.

I am grateful to Joe Johnson and all my co-workers at The Johnson Group for a meaningful year.   I’m thankful to all the good people at Erlanger Health System, Northeast Georgia Health System, West Tennessee Healthcare and others for the opportunities to do what I like to do.

I’m grateful for Micah Fries, Paul Lasso, Jeremy Maxfield, George Brown, Deb Parsons, Scott Walker, Adam Major and others at Brainerd Baptist Church for their leadership and service.  Also Robby Holt, pastor at North Shore Fellowship, who has encouraged Clark Taylor and me through the launch of CIFW. 

The year featured many upward moments.  There were also some downs.

We lost someone special this past year with the unexpected death in July of Jeremy Walker.  He was a faithful, funny guy who is sorely missed by his family and friends.

And as the year closes, one of my dearest friends is fighting the good fight against kidney failure.  I pray for Barry to recover and see healthier days in the year ahead.


Happy New Year one and all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When I'm 64

I was 15 when the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band arrived at Record Bar.  Those younger than about age 50 need know that Record Bar was a popular chain of music stores ubiquitous in malls across the South.  If you’re so young you need to know what a record is, ask your smartphone.

I bought the album and wore it out on the turntable in my bedroom--over and over, lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, absorbing every note and lyric. 

It was 20 years ago today,
Sargent Pepper taught the band to play.

Decades later I can still sing the A and B sides of Sargent Pepper all the way from the opening title track to the haunting, 42-second, final chord of A Day in the Life.  I’d love to turn you on.

The album captivated all my friends.  Some of them bought Nehru jackets.  It became the soundtrack for every stupid teenage notion and fantasy. 

I get by with a little help from my friends.
Gonna try with a little help from my friends.

The album even captured my mother.  I remember she came into my room and joined me on the bed to listen to the touching She’s Leaving Home.  She listened through it twice.  I did not appreciate it then, but she was still a young woman, and I think it spoke to her.

She breaks down and cries to her husband, Daddy,
Our baby’s gone.

Sargent Pepper is different than any LP, eight-track, cassette, CD or MP3 I’ve ever purchased.  It is at varying spots provocative, weird, contemplative, whimsical and laugh-out funny.  There are jokes on that album I didn’t catch for decades.  It never grows old.

When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

One of my favorite tracks then and now is When I’m Sixty-four.  As a teenager the song was a melodic spoof of my parents and grandparents and the odd, constrained lives they occupied.  To my 15-year-old mind, the world of 64 was a distant planet, light years away.
I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.

But that sneaky Lennon and McCartney had the gift of prophecy.  Wrapped up in the joke was the question of relevance in a dwindling life. 

Will you still need me,
Will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

I am now 64 and the need-me, feed-me questions are very much on my mind. 

What is my role in the lives of those around me?
What are my priorities in the time I have left?
What will be my legacy to children and grandchildren?
Will I be able to provide for my wife and myself as we grow older?

Sixty-four was ancient in 1968, but it feels pretty young right now.  I feel like I’m still growing.  I still want to learn. I still dream. I still anticipate some good and better things.

The worst part about turning 64 are the commercials.  It is through ads that you realize what the world really thinks of you and your remaining days.  Watch some nightly news and you will observe a three-act summary of my projected future.

Act one is the carefree, driving-down-the-highway-wind-in-my-hair stage of aging.  I’ve got Cialis in my overnight bag and plenty of money.  Endless nights in charming beds-and-breakfasts await. I take up sailing. I’ve never had it so good.

But the curtain falls on Act 1 quickly.  Act 2 begins and ends at the pharmacy.  My once-indestructible body turns fickle and lets me down at the most inopportune moments. I spend too much time in the bathroom, probably contemplating my increased risk of stroke due to A-fib.  My hip and knees prevent me from doing the things I love, which are now gardening and woodworking.  I’ve always hated gardening and woodworking, but apparently I am soon to miss them.

In Act 3 my world narrows to little more than hearth and home.  I drink a lot of coffee in the kitchen.  I get some life insurance without a medical exam.  I get a reverse mortgage to pay for the life insurance.  The highlight of my day is the moment the postman arrives with a box of new catheters. 

I don’t like this play, and I don’t want to star in it.  My faith tells me that God ordains my future, and I will accept what he has in store, but my prayer is that the Lord will write me different script.

Around age 34 the number 64 took on additional meaning for my life.  My brother-in-law John and I went on a motorcycle trip through North Carolina to the Outer Banks and back.  Our route included extended portions of U.S. Highway 64, which altogether runs 2,326 miles from Nags Head on the eastern shore to a desert terminus near the four-corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

The idea came into my head somewhere around Highlands, North Carolina that, in the year I turn 64, I would a motorcycle the length of the highway west to east, and maybe write a book about it.  I did the math as I motored along—2017.  That’s when I would take the time to do it.

In my thirties, I had everything but time. My life then was filled with young children and a demanding business.  The idea of low-stress days exploring more of highway 64’s scenic riches was epic and romantic.  No rocking chairs and burial policies for this guy--I’m going to ride my motorcycle across the country.  Eventually.  In 31 years.

Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight,
If it’s not too dear. 
We will scrimp and save.
Grandchildren on your knee,
Vera, Chuck and Dave.

There is a voice in me that says riding across the country is expensive and self-indulgent.  The real adventure in my life is my wife, children and grandchildren, and I know that is true.  Yet I hope they will all forgive me for wanting something more.  Not better, just more. 

And the voice says that a cross-country motorcycle trip is passé.  It’s been done and written about by lots of people.  But lots of people are not me.

            Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
            Stating point of view
            Indicate precisely what you mean to say
            Yours sincerely, wasting away.

I’ve chewed on this idea for too long.  I am running late for a 30-year-old appointment.  It’s time to go or find a new song.









Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Year That Netflix Ate (Almost): My Top Stories of 2016


As I reflected on my top stories of 2016, the experiences and events that meant the most to me this past year, I found my memory a bit clouded.  It seems two forces overwhelmed too much of my time and attention—the election and Netflix.

The election needs no further commentary.  What an abysmal choice of candidates.  I announced early last year that I would invoke a traditional American value and keep my vote secret, and that’s what I’ve done.

As for Netflix, at least I can say it was a waste of time I enjoyed.  Janice and I purchased a smart TV about year ago and signed up for Netflix.  The result has been way too much time binge watching Foyle’s War, Broadchurch, The Crown, Top Gear and Bletchley Circle.  I feel like a citizen of the United Kingdom.

But the year did provide some real and lasting treasures.   In approximate chronological order, here are my top stories of 2016.

Going Home to Jackson Hole

The 4th edition of Operation Snowmen took me and the usual suspects to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, my spiritual hometown.  I was born in Columbus, Ohio and I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but for the past 30 years my heart has always been in Jackson.

My past winter adventures around Jackson had all been about snowmobiling.  This time the intent was to scratch my new-found itch to ski.  For the first time the Snowmen and I ventured outside of Colorado to tackle Jackson Hole’s big mountain, where the blues look like blacks, and the blacks look like free-falls. 

Twice our group rode the famous gondola to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, which offers spectacular views of the Teton and Wind River ranges.  The only way down from there is Rendezvous Bowl, a double-black, for-experts-only, never-groomed track, where I’m sure I set a record for the slowest descent by a human being. 

Thanks for waiting on me, guys!

James Taylor

I’ve wanted to experience James Taylor in concert since I was a teenager, but it just never worked out until 2016.  To my delight I saw online that his U.S. concert tour would include Chattanooga in April.  My good friend Raymond Clark stood in line when tickets went on sale and snagged four stellar seats.

Sweet Baby James did not disappoint.   It was a bucket list kind of evening.

Living Simply at the Beach

Janice and I like to go the beach before and after school lets out.  Everything is less crowded, the temps are milder, and the prices are lower.  We usually work out a spring trip with friends or family.

This past May we decided to go the beach just the two of us, and to keep our plans as simplified as possible.  We took our bikes and not much else to a one-bedroom efficiency apartment in Blue Mountain, Florida.

It was one of our best beach vacations ever.  We took long bike rides in the morning, and then sunned on the beach all afternoon.  We ate shrimp off paper plates as the sun went down.  We didn’t dress up or go out for dinner.  We didn’t shop.  We didn’t make plans.  We just enjoyed.

All Under One Roof

Our son Whit and his family live over two hours away, so it is just a fact that we don’t see them as much as our daughter’s family who live in town.  So it was a special spring weekend when all my children and grandchildren converged at our house in May.

We played in the water at the aquarium plaza, climbed on the animals at Coolidge Park, and had an outdoor movie in the backyard.  It was wonderful to have all my children and grandchildren under one roof—my roof. 

I came from a small family and I have a small family.  I’ve never really been a part of many big, boisterous family events, and I regret that.

Our neighbors, the Jacksons, know how to throw a family party.  They feast, they make noise, they enjoy happy, chaotic fun.  Whenever I see one of their family fiestas taking place in their yard, I always get a twinge of envy. 

But for one weekend in May, I got to enjoy a little chaos of my own.

Tracking the Arrows

The way a Baptist church hires a pastor might seem strange to some people.  A committee elected by the church meets and prays and pokes around, and gets recommendations, and seeks godly counsel, and ultimately makes a recommendation.

This past summer our church went through that process and selected Micah Fries to be our new pastor.  It was an inspired choice, and certainly a highlight of my year.

But the rest of the story is that Micah Fries came to our church from a position at Lifeway, the Baptist publishing, research and educational organization where my son Whit works.  When I met Micah for the first time, he volunteered, “I know Whit.  Whit’s a good man.”

I know my son is a good man, but those words have reverberated and stayed fresh in my mind for many months.  It brings me the deepest joy to know that others see what I see, and confirm my highest hopes.

My daughter Lesley has a high profile position in our town, and I frequently get unsolicited reports on her.  A few weeks ago I got a note from someone who had heard her pray at a Rotary Club meeting.  “It was powerful,” the note said.

There is a passage in the Bible—Psalm 127—that describes children as arrows in the hands of a father.  The idea is that you release your children into the future.  While you can control their general direction—aim them so to speak—you can’t be totally sure where they will land and the full impact they will have.  You trust God will carry them, guide them and use them.

I so appreciate these simple words on Whit and Lesley.  They mean so very much.

Daniel Starts His Business

My son-in-law Daniel can build just about anything, and this past year he finally made the leap to quit his day job and go into building full time.  I'm proud of him for following his heart and trusting God to provide.  I predict a bright future for DMS Construction.

Little League Baseball and Football

When I was a younger man I would not have believed how much fun I would someday have on rock-hard benches at dusty ball fields.  Sam and Charlie both played baseball and football in 2016, and I saw every game I could.

As Janice and I walked to the car one hot and sticky evening following a double header, I recall saying to Janice that I would rather watch those little boys play ball than have tickets to the World Series, the Super Bowl or the Final Four.

Charlie Catches the Game Winner

One game in particular deserves special mention in my annual highlights.  Charlie played on a flag football team of six and seven year-olds, and as the year progressed they got increasingly good. They lost their first game, but then won a bunch in a row. 

On the last Saturday of the season they played the one team in the league that was undefeated.  It was a great game, with both teams playing very strong defense.  Late in the fourth quarter it was tied 6 to 6. 

In the closing minutes the opposing team finally did what they had done all year, and marched down the field to score.  After they failed to run their extra point into the end zone, the score stood 12-6 with only seconds left to play.

There was time for one final play.  Wake Scearce, Charlie’s cousin and the team’s quarterback, ran the ball the length of the field for the tying score.  It was like a scene from a movie.  People were jumping up and down.  Hats were flying.  Even the divorced parents hugged each other.

Even though time was expired, the Mighty Scots got to go for their extra point.  Wake took the snap and ran right.  The entire defense, aware that this kid had just smoked them for 60 yards, converged on Wake like a cresting wave.

Then suddenly, Wake stopped and lobbed the ball to Charlie who caught it near the back line of the end zone.  It was epic.

As we were riding home from the game, Charlie was in the back seat and I heard him say under his breath, “I can’t believe I did that.”

45 Years of Sleeping with the Same Woman

Janice and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary last July.  To celebrate, we took a raft trip down the Hiwassee River.  Yep, that’s how we hopeless romantics roll.  Or float.

Thanks for saying yes, Babe.  Let’s keep paddling.

Funeral for a Friend

My dear friend Gene Nowell died this past summer after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease.  He was a courageous man, and a hero to me for the way he expressed his love and maintained his good humor, even in the face of such a horrible illness.

Gene’s wife Jo asked me to preside at the funeral.  I’ve attended funerals, I’ve spoken at some of them, but I’ve never “preached” one.  The idea of it was intimidating, but for Jo and Gene I could not say no.

Those who don’t acknowledge God cannot understand what I’m about the write.  In such a situation you prepare notes, you write things out ahead of time, but at the moment The Holy Spirit takes over.  I don’t know what all I said,  I only know the Lord provided the words. 

Thank you, Gene, for a lifetime of friendship.  And thank you, Jo, for allowing me to be a part of your saying goodbye.  I love you both.

GiGi Turns 90

Janice’s mother is a marvel.  At age 90 she still lives independently and alone.  She is still active at church and in her garden club.  Her daily exercise routine is a 40 yard walk to her mailbox, come rain, or snow or gloom of night.

In August we got to observe GiGi’s 90th birthday.  The whole family gathered to celebrate.  I hope as the years go by I can do as much and have as much love around me as she.

Grayson Highlands and New, Old Friends

When our children were young, the Rollins family was a big part of our lives.  We took a number of family vacations together, and we were close.  But as the years went by, as so often happens in life, Charlie, Susan, Janice and I drifted apart.

We reconnected with the Rollins this past year through a shared love of The Virginia Creeper, the wonderful bike trail that runs 34 miles from Whitetop Mountain, Virginia, through Damascus and on to Abingdon. 

We went to the Creeper twice with the Rollins in 2016, but the added highlight for this year was when Charlie and Susan introduced us to a new wonderland, Grayson Highlands State Park.  Grayson Highlands is a wild place--a tumble of rocks and pinnacles surrounded by meadows kept short by grazing herds of feral ponies. 

Grayson Highlands is the only place I’ve found in the eastern United States that thrills my heart like the western United States.  It is as if a portion of the Yosemite high country made its way to Virginia.  I can’t wait to go back.

New York, New York

Janice and I made a resolution last Christmas that, to the extent we could, we would stop giving stuff and start gifting experiences.  That idea led us to book at trip to New Your City for the two of us and Lesley, Daniel, Sam and Charlie.  (Whit, Sarah, Oliver and August were not in a position to participate, as you will soon discover.)

We did all the touristy things—the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, museums, shows—and had a great time.  My hope and prayer is that the Lord will allow us plan more experiences with all our children and grandchildren as the years go by.

Let's Hear It for the Girls

The biggest news of 2016 was the announcement that Sarah and Whit would welcome their third child, and the family’s first girl, sometime in December.  We’ve waited out the year in excited expectation.

This news was surprise to all, and especially to Whit and Sarah, and especially to Sarah.  They thought they were out of the baby business, and all of the clothes, furniture and armamentarium that comes with a newborn were out of the house.

Sarah handled all the preparation with grace and gratitude.  I greatly admire the way Sarah mothers her children, teaches them, loves them and challenges their growing minds.  Baby Pen might be unexpected, but she could never ask for a more welcoming and nurturing mom.

In the wee hours of December 18, the text came that Whit and Sarah were on the way to the hospital.  It was a night of violent storms, so Janice and I decided to wait for daylight before heading north.  We prayed for safety for everyone, and drifted in and out of sleep.  Well, I slept.   Janice drifted.

Whit and Sarah had a great plan to cover every delivery contingency.  When the big moment arrived, Sarah’s parents would drive about 90 minutes from their home to stay with Oliver and August.  In case they needed help faster, Sarah’s best friend would drive over to stay with the boys.  They also recruited a backup sitter, just in case.

The next morning we learned the full story of how during the stormy night neither sitter heard their phones.  We learned how Whit banged on a neighbor’s door to get someone to stay with the boys.  We learned how Sarah’s parents endured tornado warnings and torrential rain to get there. 

But the Lord provided and everyone came through the night safely, including beautiful Penelope Jane Stiles. 

Baby Pen, you make us so happy.  Thank you for gracing our year and blessing our lives.  And thank you Sarah for your grace, beauty and nurturing love.

And Then There Were Five

Pen's arrival means Janice and I end the year with five beautiful grandchildren.  They are all so different.  They are all uniquely gifted in delightful ways.  Sam is energetic, contemplative and competitive.  Oliver is creative, inventive, inquisitive and incredibly smart.  Charlie and August are both playful, funny and expressive perpetual motion machines.  We look forward to all the ways Pen will express her own personality.

The general sentiment about 2016 is that it was an unfortunate year and good riddance.  I don't see it that way.  As 2016 fades away, I can't help but feel blessed and grateful about all the Lord has provided.