Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Let’s go see the baby

Image from Fairfax.cc
One night long ago, some shepherds were in a field, keeping an eye on their flock.

And, in an instant, an angel appeared to them—with a bright light shining all around him—and the shepherds were terrified.

And the angel said, “Don’t be scared.  I’ve got good news for you.  Today, this very day, the one who’ll bring joy and salvation to the world has been born in Bethlehem.  And this will be a sign for you:  You’ll find the baby bundled up and resting in a cattle trough.  Yes, a cattle trough.”

And then, suddenly, the angel was surrounded by a bunch of other angels, all of them saying—shouting really—“Glory be to God in heaven, and on earth, let there be peace and goodwill toward mankind.”

And when the angels had finally departed, the shepherds looked at one another and said, “Let’s go see the baby.”

***


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

SAUL
DAVID
SOLOMON

at the top.

And then 2 lines branching out, with

/
REHOBOAM

of the Judah kingdom on one side and

\
JEROBOAM

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

Speeding


Sitting in the courtroom

waiting for my name to be called

and finally hearing the clerk read out

MICHAEL ALLEN

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

Speeding

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

Loudly

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

Monday, July 20, 2015

Running and hugging

Flickr photo by Donnie Ray Jones
Remember

when you were a kid

and you were so excited to see someone

that you had to run over and give ‘em a hug

So excited to see your grandma

or your favorite uncle

or your dad just returned from a long trip

that you wanted to be next to them

Right then

In their arms

or just holding on to their leg for a while

And they would look down at you and smile and say something like

Well, hello there


The last time I remember running and hugging

was in college

during a club basketball game

A close game

Right down to the wire

And I was watching from the bench

(a classic example of bad coaching)

And at the very end

the ball came into the hands of Brian

who turned around and made an impossible shot

--at the buzzer--

to win the game

Swish

Just like that

And I couldn’t think of anything to do

but to jump up and down

and run around hugging everyone in sight


And since then?

Well, it feels like I’ve outgrown the running part

But I do still hug

A proper grownup hug

Like our son always says

They’re free!

But, now that I think about it some more

Maybe there’s a little running left in this old body

for certain special occasions

Like the man in that story long ago …

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.


***



* Last line from … English Standard Version Copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Tiny fawn ... a poem by Cheryl


It’s been a rough day
The hurt I kept hidden
has been uncovered
And worries abound

But I saw a tiny fawn
as I rode my bike
down a wooded path
So frail it stood in grassy shadows
spotted coat
eyes wide
Its mother looking on
from across the way

And there’s a single flower
blooming in my back yard
that I did not plant
It has sprung up
uninvited
with speckled center
and tender petals
of melon-gold

~ Cheryl W. Allen

Monday, June 29, 2015

Answered prayer

I’ve been in a couple of Bible study groups

Where the leader asks

Who would like to share about a time when God answered your prayer?

And I have a go-to story for a question such as this

Want to hear it?

***

In the summer before my junior year of college

I was hanging out at a friend’s house

Sitting in his living room, watching TV

When he looked over at me and said

I heard that Cheryl Waite and her boyfriend broke up

Huh, I said

But, now that I think about it

It was probably more of a Hmm than a Huh

And from that day forward

I began to pray that Cheryl Waite would be my wife

Weird, I know

But I did it anyway

Prayed like a champion

Until the fall

When I was hanging out in my dorm

On the very first day of the semester

The very first day, mind you

And Cheryl Waite walked by

After helping some guy carry his stuff down the hall

Cheryl Waite

The Cheryl Waite

And she gave me a smile

And a side hug

And a How was your summer?

And, as they say

The rest is history.



***

"She was riding along a red dirt ridge to the south sitting with her hands crossed on the pommel ... That's my heart yonder, he told the horse." - Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men

Monday, June 8, 2015

Is Heaven for Real?


Ever since Mom passed, I’ve been thinking more and more about heaven

What’s it like?

What’s she doing up there?

Not too long ago, I pictured heaven like it was right out of the book of Revelation

Streets of gold, pearly gates, the whole nine yards

I’m not kidding

Now I’m not so sure

I have my moments—even minutes—of doubt about the afterlife

Is heaven for real?

Revelation doesn’t help much

Horsemen, Babylon, the whole millennial idea

It’s hard to tell what everything means

And so I do the only thing I know to do

I turn to Jesus

I put my trust in him

What does he have to say about all this?

Well, as you might imagine, he says a good bit

But, maybe my favorite thing, was on the day he died

When he turned to a criminal next to him and said, Today you’ll be with me in paradise

Letting an underserving guy make it into heaven

Plus a whole lot of other folks you and I know

And Mom

Eternally with the Lord

Well … that’s good enough for me

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bad parenting



Dinner with friends

“Where are we going?”

“What time?”

“You’re allergic to seafood?  I didn’t know that”

“Okay, let’s do the seafood place; they also have chicken and steak”

And off we go

With the early half of us waiting in the bar for the late half to arrive

So we can get a table and

Settle in

To talk about work and home improvements and finally

Kids

The conversation always seems to turn to kids

“How are they?”

“What are they doing this summer?”

And then one woman speaks up

And says—not joking

“Okay, tell about a time when you were a bad parent”

And we look at each other and someone goes

“Well that’s easy”

And the stories begin to flow …

I was with my son in a food court—not really paying attention—when I noticed one of the tines had broken off his plastic fork.  He’d swallowed it

I pushed my daughter’s swing too hard and off to one side, and she hit the support post of the swing set

A good number of tales—cringe-worthy; more than you might expect

We laugh; it’s easy to laugh about these things now

They happened so long ago

But with each story, there’s a trace of guilt; you can see it

Feel it

There’s clear evidence we’ve been bad parents …


And then after dinner

Standing off in the corner with another dad

He looks at me and says, “You know, I’ve got a lot of bad-parent stories, but I’ve also got a lot of good ones”

I smile and say, “Me too”

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The classroom at the end of the hall



45 minutes before the funeral, I decided to go for a walk

Down the first-floor hallway, past bulletin boards and classrooms and turning left to see an old familiar stairway

With gray steps

And a solid railing

Something good to hold on to on a day like today

And making my way up two half-flights

And realizing I used to be quicker than this, much quicker

And coming out into another hallway that felt as familiar as any room in my childhood home

A place frozen in time from all those Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights of long ago

And knowing now why my feet had taken this path …


Moving toward the last classroom at the end of the hall

Except it wasn’t a classroom anymore

It was a storage area for AV equipment

And pausing at the doorway before going in, before placing a hand on the TV stand at the front of the room

In this hallowed space

In this space where Mom had stood and talked about Noah and the Judges and the 12 Apostles

And of Jesus

And I, and who knows how many other kids, had sat right there

Learning about God, learning to love Him

And here I was again, feeling like I was back in third grade

Weeping

Because my teacher was gone, and I missed her

And for just a few minutes, holding tightly to the memories before heading back down to the place where everybody was waiting

Feeling sad, very sad

But also grateful for the woman, and the church, who raised me.

Marilyn Jean McCluggage Allen