Monday, November 30, 2015

Christmas countdown

Mom used to hang a piece of white flannel on the wall beside our refrigerator.  It was short in width and long in length, and had red numbers—from 1 to 25—stitched into the cloth.  The flannel went up on December 1st (or maybe even earlier, if we couldn’t wait) and came down just after Christmas.  On each number, Mom would hang a small candy cane.  Or more accurately, she would tape a plastic-covered cane on top of each number.  (She was a Sunday school teacher and always had plenty of tape on hand, both of the Scotch and masking varieties.)

25 days and 25 candy canes to go before Christmas.

Mom and I had a conversation, each year, about the best approach to removing the candy canes.  We would quickly agree that it was more fun to start on day 25, and remove the candy from the bottom of the chart to the top.  This would show us exactly how many days were left until Christmas.

(Personally, I never really liked candy canes much.  I didn’t mind sucking on them and creating a sharp point with the long stem-piece, but they made your hands sticky, and I would have much preferred Hershey’s Kisses instead.  So the taking down of the candy was my job, but the eating of the candy was open to anyone in the family.)

I must have walked by that chart a thousand times, and each time I would think something like, “16 more days until Christmas.  I’ll never make it.”  I wished that there was some way to speed up the process.  To go from bottom to top in a day, or even better, in a minute.  To make it Christmas right now.  The waiting was terrible.  Can you imagine having to endure such an ordeal?

But, the day would finally come when only one cane remained.  The best day of the year—Christmas Eve.  The best day for our family, because we opened presents on Christmas Eve—a thing considered to be blasphemous by many of my friends.

And how did Santa get the presents to us before Christmas Day, you might ask?

Easy!  He came to our front door (we didn’t have a chimney) and handed the gifts to my parents.  He was Santa.  He could do anything he wanted.

And then, in a flash, Christmas would be over.  We’d take down the tree (or take it apart, plastic piece by plastic piece, in later years) and carefully place all of the decorations into a box.  The box would eventually make its way up to the attic above our carport until the next holiday season, when we’d open it up again and pull out—first thing—the Christmas countdown calendar.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Love that cat

Some people are dog people and some are cat people.

I’m a cat person.

Sometimes I wish I wasn’t.  Like the fact that it seems more manly to be a dog guy.

But I am firmly in the cat camp.

There are some things about yourself, you just can’t change.  Some things you are hardwired to be.


More than a decade ago, we adopted a white feline with black spots named “Lady”.  That’s the name she came to us with, and she even had a couple of heart-shaped spots behind her back paws.

She was a sweet young thing.  And naughty at times.  More than few times.  But at some point, she became fully grafted into the life of our family.

There she was for all of our family gatherings and a few vacations.  She hopped onto the table during meals.  She messed up pieces on our game boards and ate portions of our puzzles.  She left messes everywhere—everywhere—nuff said.

Lady even made it into a couple of Christmas card pictures along the way, and she eventually possessed a good number of nicknames, for some reason.

Lades.  Lady Ladester.  Wady Wadester.  You get the picture.

She was always underfoot and waking us up much earlier than we wanted.

And we loved her, one and all.


On a bleak day, back in April, I got a call from my sister.  Our mother was not doing well.  She likely only had a few days left to live.

I was sitting there on the phone, despairing … as sad as a person could be, when old Lady—arthritic Lady—jumped into my lap and curled up.  Just as comforting as anything you can imagine.  Like the spirit of God coming to rest.

I will never forget that moment.  Or, if I do, you can remind me.

Of Lady.  Our precious pet, who left us last week—went to sleep or passed away … however I should say it.  We were sad to lose her.

But grateful too, for this small and tender blessing.  One of many, from the Father.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

My go-to costume

As a kid, my go-to Halloween costume was “cowboy.”

Snap-up plaid shirt.  Blue jeans.  Sneakers.  10-gallon hat.  (Okay, maybe 5-gallon hat.)  Cap gun in holster.  Bandana.

And a couple of special effects that put me miles ahead of the other cowboys.

What were those, you ask?

Well, first, there was a genius concoction that Mom had come up with.  Something that she’d read about in a magazine or heard about from another mother.  It was our secret weapon during the Halloween season:

A stubbly cowboy beard.

How this worked … Mom mixed coffee grounds with some sort of sticky substance—which may have been Elmer’s glue, I’m not sure—and then gently sponged the mixture onto my face.

Cowboy stubble—voilà!

Then, there was my own killer addition—a big wad of bubble gum in my check which I worked like chewing tobacco, even spitting from time to time to make my character come alive.

I believe I was the most convincing cowboy around those parts.

Except for the sneakers.

I probably could have used a pair of boots.

Cheryl’s go-to costume, Pippi Longstocking

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The golden king

For some reason, when I was a kid, Mom was intent on my memorizing the names of the Old Testament kings … in chronological order.

She had even drawn out a chart, on poster board, with


at the top.

And then 2 lines branching out, with


of the Judah kingdom on one side and


of the Israel kingdom on the other.

Plus a bunch more names were under each branch.

Some of the kings, I’d heard of before, and some of them … well, no one had ever heard of.

PEKAHIAH” … I rest my case.

And then, right next to each name was a chess-piece drawing of a king:

So a guy like DAVID was a gold king (obviously),

AHAB was a green king (duh),

and JEHU was striped.

I think you get the picture.

And for a time, this poster somehow made its way into our bathroom.  I’m guessing the theory being that I would learn names while brushing my teeth or combing my hair (which were both, sadly, rare occurrences).

But eventually, I did memorize the chart.  Because, you see … there was a dollar bill waiting for me at the end of each list of kings.

(Ah, Bribes and the Bible, now there’s a book I could write—mostly from my own employment of this method as a parent.)

And at the end of all that memorizing, and of the receiving of my just rewards, I was surprised at just how much of the information I retained … especially from those images of gold, green, and stripes.

So that later, much later, when I’d hear stories about David (good king), I’d think, “Wait a minute, didn’t he do something inappropriate with Bathsheba?  And didn’t he have a man killed?  Are you kidding me?”

And I’d also ponder Manasseh (bad king) and say, “Hold on, that guy repented in jail.  He should get some credit for that.  Right?”

And then, one day much much later, it occurred to me.  Maybe it would have been more accurate to have all of the kings colored in stripes.

Just like all of us … striped.

Looking forward to the day—with some Help—when we become gold.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Sitting in the courtroom

waiting for my name to be called

and finally hearing the clerk read out


I pop up out of my seat

and walk quickly to the front

to face The Judge

with His well-armed deputy standing off to my right

The Judge, the deputy and I form a small triangle

at the bench

where we speak in hushed tones, for some reason

sharing the secret of what I’ve done


64 mph in a 45 zone

not too far from the courthouse itself, actually

And The Judge asks me

What do you have to say for yourself?

And I say, basically

Guilty as charged

And The Judge’s face, not changing one bit

but His tone softening just a little

Well, Mr. ALLEN, I’m afraid it’s Driver’s Improvement Training for you

And then a pause

And once you’ve completed that, well

I’ll go ahead and throw out this ticket

And I say, Thank you, Your Honor

and turn to shake the deputy’s hand

and walk out of the courtroom into fresh air and sunshine

And I do exactly what The Judge tells me to do

I sit all day—on a Saturday mind you

in Driver’s Improvement class

surrounded by other speeders and red-light runners

most of them young enough to be my kids

or maybe even my grandkids

I sit there and receive

a clean record

and forgiveness from The Judge

It’s as if I’d never sped a day in my life

Do you know how good that feels?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Remembering Coach Laird

I have a soft spot in my heart for football coaches.

Sadly, one of my favorite coaches (and people)—Bill Laird—passed away not too long ago.

Bill and I worked together, back in the day, at Central Arkansas Christian Schools and at the Southwest Church of Christ.  At the beginning of each school year, Bill would head down the hill to the football field, and I’d walk over to the gym for volleyball practice.  How lucky were we … spending our days and weekends with such good students, teachers, and church friends?

Off the top of my head, there are three things I remember about Bill:
  • His buzz-cut haircut, like a guy straight out of the 1950s
  • His warm and boyish grin
  • His words of grace
Of course, it’s the third one I remember most.  During the two years Cheryl and I spent in Little Rock, I can’t think of a person who spoke more grace-filled words into our lives than Coach Laird.

When Cheryl and I showed up one summer to work with the youth group at church, Bill took several Sundays (no exaggeration here) to begin his sermons by welcoming us to the Southwest congregation.  Safe to say, we have never felt so welcomed by a church.  It was slightly embarrassing, but mostly it was heartwarming.

And then there was the time my dad was invited to Southwest to hold a gospel meeting …

When Bill heard that Dad was allergic to dust and mold, he said, “Well, you know it’s about time we replaced the old carpet in this church building.”  And so he worked with other church leaders to do just that … to put down new carpet, so Dad would feel more comfortable in his surroundings.

And then there was another time when Cheryl and I took the youth group up to St. Louis for a weekend road trip …

On the way back, we—uh—accidentally busted out one of the windows in the church van (long story).  When I (nervously) told Bill about it, he just said, “Now, Michael, don’t you even worry about that.  We’ll get the van fixed up this week.  It’s no big deal.”

Ah, the cool breeze of grace.

After spending about a year as the youth minister at Southwest, I headed off to take a job with the Air Force.  Before I left, I gave a little farewell speech at a Sunday evening service.  The end of it went something like this …

In case we don’t see each other again here on earth, let’s be sure to meet up again in heaven.  And why don’t we plan on getting together in the southwest corner?

Well, Bill has gone on ahead of us now … and I do look forward to seeing him again one day.  I want to see his smile and hear his words of grace.

And, of course, I want to make sure he’s keeping his hair cut short.

From the 1991 CAC yearbook

Monday, August 10, 2015

The annoying kid on the plane

The kid across from me on the plane

is a real chatterbox

He looks to be about 10 or 12

and he’s talking the ear off

of the gentleman

--an apparent stranger--

who’s trapped in the seat beside him

Do you like Pokémon? I like Pokémon

Which one’s your favorite? I like …

And all I can think is

Thank you Lord that I’m not sitting next to that kid

I put in my earbuds

and settle back

and look over again a short time later

to see that the man is fast asleep

The kid has worn him out

And so we continue

from Atlanta to Washington

1 hour and 45 minutes

in relative peace and quiet

Thank you Lord

And when we finally land

and roll into our gate

and the seatbelt sign goes off

the same kid stands up

and launches into a conversation with the woman behind him


He’s got plenty of words saved up

And why are you coming to DC?

What are you planning to do here?

Are you going to see the monuments?

Talking a mile a minute and hardly waiting for answers

and all I can think is

Thank you Lord that I’m not sitting behind that kid

But the woman is very kind

more so than I’d be in her shoes

and the kid eats it up

He’s hungry for attention

so she feeds him a question

And why are you coming to DC, young man?

And the kid says

without hesitation

I live in Maryland, with my grandparents

You see

He lives in Maryland

with his grandparents

And all I can think is

Lord, please bless this kid

Bless him