Make the Most of an Abilene Summer

The rigorous schedule of school will soon give way to the slowness of summer, if it hasn’t already. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, June 21 will be the longest day of the year, or at least the longest amount of sunlight. The summer solstice officially marks the beginning of summer, though we have most likely already begun our summer celebration. Summer in West Texas doesn’t lazily slide into town on the coattails of spring, but rather bolts in breathing hotly down spring’s back, shoving it aside and loudly declaring its arrival and intended stay.
It isn’t even Memorial Day and many of us have already bravely donned our swimsuit, eaten our fill of watermelon, and even slurped an inaugural snow cone. I am in favor of a shorter summer and longer springs and falls which are gentler seasons, catered to by actual spring and fall clothing lines from Land’s End or L.L. Bean. I sometimes thumb through the catalogs looking longingly at spring sweaters or jackets, but pass them by, knowing I couldn’t wear them more than a day or two. In West Texas, only two seasons are worth your shopping time – hot and cold.
Although I would prefer it not last from April to November, I do like summer. I like the lazier rhythm, homemade ice cream, beach vacations, and long days filled with sunshine — preferably under 100 degrees.
Also, summer means it is time for Caring in Action (CIA) day camps sponsored by Connecting Caring Communities and hosted by CCC’s Young Leaders of Abilene (YLA) leadership group for middle- and high-schoolers. For the third summer, these youths will be spending their summer learning and practicing leadership skills as they lead day camps for the elementary-age children in the College Heights neighborhood. Camps will be held at Grace Fellowship Church at 910 Cypress, Monday through Thursday, from 1-3 pm. (See below for camp dates.)
This year, the campers will be asked to STRETCH their minds and bodies and imaginations and vision. The theme allows us to focus on reading and brain teasers and puzzles and yoga and Zumba and karate and hobbies and careers and community service. These camps are made possible by a Future Fund grant from the Community Foundation of Abilene.
If you are too old for camp, don’t despair. Summer provides opportunities for adults to be leaders in their neighborhood as well. Longer days mean more opportunities to host your neighbors for a backyard barbecue, or collaborate with them for a block party. Check out your neighborhood association and see if you can host an event to get to know more folks and increase your community’s involvement in the association. The list is as endless as the heat of summer. Make the most of it!

  • Week 1 – June 12-15
  • Week 2 – June 26-29
  • Week 3 – July 10-13
  • Week 4 – July 24-27

* Campers are encouraged to come all four weeks!

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

No matter how much we try and plan for the future, none of us can know the twists and turns of “what’s next.” The truth of this principle has recently been reinforced to me. I have resigned from CCC, effective by the end of February. How this came about is a bit of a long story, but I think it’s a good one, so please bear with me.

My 88-year-old dad has been battling a crippling neuro-muscular disease for about 10 years. (Some of you may recall that I wrote a post about him back in the fall of 2016.) This disease has left him unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, and essentially homebound. He lives in Orange County, Texas, between Orange and Beaumont, in the same house where I was raised, and on the same piece of land where he was born and raised. Recent events, including a visit last month to help care for him, have convinced my brothers and me that dad is simply no longer able to stay by himself.

My brothers and I have discussed this at length, and considered all the various options available – hiring an outside caregiver, relocating dad to live with one of us, moving him into a nursing home. For various reasons, none of these options can work for him, or for us. We have decided that the best course of action would be for me to move in with dad and serve as his full-time caregiver.

While I am looking forward to spending more time with my dad and serving him, I am overwhelmingly sad about leaving Abilene, and CCC in particular. In the nearly nine years since I joined this team, I have been blessed to make some wonderful friends and see amazing things done, working with neighbors and others to better our community.

I have learned so much during my time with CCC – especially about what it really means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The opportunity to meet some great people, to get to know neighbors from different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, and to host them in our home – these have been priceless blessings that I will always cherish.

I think of friends I made who have passed away: people like sweet Sandy, a tattooed elderly lady that I met through Meals on Wheels. Sandy, you must have lived an interesting life in your younger days; I’m sorry I never got to hear the stories I’ll bet you could have told. People like David, confined to a wheelchair, yet always with a smile on his face. Rhonda; Jimmy; Paul; all of you blessed me with your friendship, and I thank you. I will continue to miss you, and remember you fondly.

I think of the kids who spent part of their afternoons with me and our volunteers at “Kids’ Club,” and the parents who trusted me to watch their little ones for a while. It was my honor, and my pleasure. We had a good time doing homework, drawing on the sidewalks, climbing trees, doing crafts, and more. And I remember the Bible stories we told – “they say stories like that make a boy grow bold, stories like that make a man walk straight.” The Fruit of the Spirit and the Armor of God, David, Deborah, Moses and Esther. Mary & Joseph, Peter and John and the boys, and best of all, Jesus, the manger, the parables, the miracles, and the cross. And the twelfth and final egg, which is, of course, empty.

I think of the meals, and all the laughs we had around the table and out in the yard. Easter egg hunts and Halloween carnivals. Banana boats and dirt cake, hot dogs and Frito pie. A dunking booth on a certain very cool October day, and kickball games. Swing sets and bluebonnets. The prayer walks and recruiting volunteers. Working with teens for the “Young Leaders of Abilene.” Finding unexpected skills, like the time I handed my neighbor Diego the spatula during a cookout, then couldn’t get it back, only to learn that he used to be a short-order cook! I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it.

And I think of so many friends who have supported, and continue to support, our work through your prayers, your gifts and your financial participation, a huge and heartfelt “thank you.” We literally could not do this without your gracious assistance and partnership.

To the colleagues I’m leaving behind, past and present. Please know that I’ve enjoyed every minute of working beside you. It has been a privilege to serve with you. I’m praying for your continued success.

Working for CCC has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I shall always cherish the opportunity to live out the call to love our neighbors, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to seek the shalom of our city. Thank you for your participation in this ministry, and may the Lord continue to bless and guide all of you, as you continue to work on behalf of CCC, our neighbors, and our community.


Some Things are Right with the World

It has been a long two weeks, and I am worn out. I am suffering from scrutiny overload; diligently dissecting discussions, carefully criticizing comments, and evaluating … well, everything. Editorials, opinion pieces, news reports, blogs, SNL skits, and Facebook posts.

Don’t get me wrong. It is important to be informed. It is imperative we investigate the actions of those in places of power and influence, and speak up when we disagree and find those actions out of step with our beliefs and core values. That is a good thing.

And there has been much to question lately about what it means to be an American. I don’t want us to ever stop pondering those principles.

But I am weary. And I think it is because I can’t seem to turn off this hyper-vigilant scrutiny. My critical eye has become so fine-tuned, my skills so sharply honed, that I am prepared to offer that kind of analysis at all times: to my family, coworkers, friends, service providers. No one seems to be doing things quite right these days.

I need a break. And I thought you might, too.

So, here are some things that are right with my world:

• First-grade art students painting and weaving paper strips and then cutting them into hearts. And then melting my heart with their school glue sticky hugs just because I was lucky enough to drop in at the right time and lend a hand.
• Residents at a local nursing center who always remember to ask me about my classes and then tell me I can do it and they are proud of me.
• Guests at CityLight, a local outreach to those experiencing homelessness and poverty, who always come back to the kitchen and say how thankful they are, and whose smiles amidst real, daily struggles inspire and convict me.
• Pre-dawn walks under bright starry skies, even when your breath is visible.
• Sandal-wearing-porch-swinging days in February.
• Neighbors eating a meal together and conspiring about ways to improve their neighborhood.
• Youngsters planning a sock hop for their older neighbors confined to a nursing center.
• A local coffee shop and some good fiction, or maybe a chat with a fellow tea-sipper.
• Rosie’s hugs every time you pass her wheelchair — just in case — because she can’t remember if she hugged you yet or not.
• Laughing out loud – and not at anyone’s expense.
• The boundless hospitality of some neighbors on Sunday nights.
• Family that is more loving and patient than I deserve.

An acquaintance who struggles with depression and anxiety asked me in a text how I deal with fear of the future and feeling lonely. I quickly responded with the maybe too-pat answer of “find some people who inspire and encourage you and spend time with them, and then find some ways that you can be useful.”

Now I would add, take a good hard look at all that is right with the world.

If you need to, make a list.

Taxes and Neighbors

Yawn–I think just lost about 50% of my potential readers with that title.
At least now I know that those of you still choosing to read are committed.

Over the last year, a couple of different grants have given us the opportunity to dig into research on economic development. If we can play a part in neighboring families becoming more financially stable, those families are more likely to remain in the neighborhood. And a neighborhood with less turnover has higher civic engagement, higher reported life satisfaction, higher rate of high school graduation (and thereby higher earnings)–even lower teen pregnancy rates.

Financial stability begets community stability.

That research is pushing us closer and closer to piloting a matched savings program. You can read all about that here and here.

To make up for the boring blog title, I want to share something exciting to share from our research. Today is a special holiday!

January 27th is Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day! Yay!

Ok so maybe you won’t be carving a turkey for this one, but in my opinion, the EITC is still something to celebrate. Let me explain…

This is Texas and if there are two things we love in Texas (besides barbecue) they’re family and hard work. The EITC is designed to promote exactly these two things. With the exception of folks with a few certain disabilities, taxpayers must work to get the credit. Also, a greater credit is available for larger families–an acknowledgment that more dependents mean a higher cost of living. In 2016, 2.6 million working poor Texans received $2,749 on average when they filed their income tax. That means Texans brought $7.1 billion back into Texas pockets by using this credit.  Plus, if you’re not a fan of welfare,
studies show that the EITC encourages large numbers of single parents to leave welfare for work. Lastly, research indicates that families mostly use the tax boost to pay for necessities, repair homes, maintain vehicles that are needed to commute to work, and in some cases, obtain additional education or training to boost their employability and earning power.

Although the incentives are plenty, many people who qualify don’t know about the EITC. So it is also something to make sure our neighbors hear about. In fact, estimates report that up to 20% of working taxpayers who qualify for the credit do not claim it.

So there you go. You’ve successfully celebrated Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day and (to stick with the Texas theme) learned something ta’ boot!

A Small Group of Citizens

For as long as I can remember, I have loved trains. I enjoy watching them, riding on them, and reading about them. I also enjoy building and operating miniature trains through the hobby of model railroading. And so I am a member of a model train club here in Abilene.

It’s a good club, and we have about 30 members. Some of us are skilled at building and maintaining well-running train cars and locomotives. Others are good at scenery – fashioning mountains and lakes or modeling city streets and industries that our little trains can serve. Some are good at carpentry, others understand electronics, and still others enjoy researching a particular railroad, so that they can duplicate its practices in miniature.

Put all these various skills and interests together with members who are willing to share what they know, and it makes our club really special. No matter what aspect of the hobby I’m working on, there is someone in our club who is good at it, and who is willing to help me with my project.

It is this willingness to share what you know and help others that elevates our club into a community. In fact, many organizations thrive on this same sort of camaraderie – mutual respect for others, sharing of valuable skills, the willingness to help, and the humility to ask for assistance when needed. Ideally, we should find the same principles at work closer to home, even in our own neighborhoods.

Last week, CCC sponsored a dinner in the College Heights neighborhood, with more than two dozen neighbors coming together. We ate and got to know each other a little better. We talked about our dreams for the neighborhood and how each of us can contribute to those dreams. Neighbors were asked to write down one thing they were good at. The answers were surprising – and encouraging.

Just within that small group of neighbors, we found people who know how to restore old furniture, and others who can speak Chinese. Some said they were good at providing child care, others understand how to use social media and technology, and others enjoy baking. We have some who sew and some who sing. And we won’t go hungry – one neighbor said she can cook Spanish rice, and another offered to make Maryland Crab Soup!

CCC believes strongly in the principles of Asset Based Community Development. In other words, instead of focusing all our attention on the problems we are facing, let’s focus on the assets we have to make our neighborhoods better. And without fail, our strongest assets are our neighbors themselves.

Now that we have identified these strengths, we will be looking for ways that these neighbors can use their various skills and interests to serve the entire neighborhood. We believe that doing this will inspire others to step up and do the same, and in the process, our neighborhoods will be improved for everyone.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It’s true for model train clubs. It’s also true for neighborhoods.

The Christmas Store

I have always thought that gifts should be accompanied by a video of the shopping trip on which the gift was purchased. This has been especially true when my young children have shopped with one parent for the other – and in particular my daughter shopping with my husband for me. It would be a videographer’s delight; eye-rolling and dramatic exclamations, “Oh no, not that, Dad! That’s for old ladies. Mom would never wear that.” But also the excitement when they see that thing they know is perfect for him or her. “He is going to love this! I can’t wait to watch him open this!” Sometimes the anticipation is so great they don’t wait, bursting in the house with, “Guess what we got you for Christmas?”
But if you could be the proverbial fly on the wall and witness the conspiratorial whispers and the delight of discovering the just rightness of a gift, it would magnify the magic of the moment.

It is more blessed to give than to receive. Most of us have almost learned this as we become adults. I was just bemoaning the fact that I was being a terrible shopper this year, and my son replied with this text: “Nah, I think the older we get the less important it becomes to us material-wise. At least for me. I never understood how or why you guys could say you didn’t want anything for Christmas, but now it is more difficult for me to think of something I want than it is scary to imagine getting nothing. Which is to say you rock and played Santa wonderfully well for many years and we all appreciate you enough to know that as adults the best things in life aren’t things.”

He has a son who is now 3 and definitely sees life differently as a father.

I know things aren’t all that important, and I struggle with the consumerism of Christmas, but I do enjoy choosing gifts for people I love. It gives you a moment to focus on the individual characteristics of that person in your life, to celebrate the things that make him or her special and to appreciate the unique role that person plays in your life. That has become a big part of the season’s joy for me. Giving gifts makes me happy.

The past two weeks I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on some families who were doing just that for their children, and it was pure joy.

First Baptist Church, in its service to Abilene families through GLO daycare, CityLight – an outreach to the working poor and homeless — and a longstanding partnership with Martinez Elementary, has each Christmas helped folks in the traditional way; buying and delivering requested gifts to referred families. This year, FBC revamped its Christmas contributions and with members’ donations of brand new toys and literally thousands of dollars, transformed the CityLight meeting room into a well-stocked toy store, playing host to the magic of the holiday season. And as a partner, we got to participate. We were also able to connect our generous sponsor, Hendrick Health System, to the Christmas store as well.

So, rather than the philanthropic church folks’ hearts being warmed by the smiles of delight on the cherubic faces of Christmas children, the hearts of Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa will be. And the joy began among the shelves of a makeshift showroom on Hickory Street. I don’t think the bustling shoppers perusing the aisles of FAO Schwarz could outdo the merriment of the shoppers on Hickory.

My favorites were the fathers shopping for their young ones. I guess because the care and tenderness of fathers often gets overlooked these days. The couples shopping together were a close second, because there were gasps and laughter and talk about the merits of their selections – and each of their children – and how or why he or she would love the purchase.

The joy and relief of finding gifts and being able to purchase them for their kids filled the showroom and spilled into the city streets as we loaded their bundles into their cars, and I imagine followed them all the way home.
I know it has followed me for days.

Waiting on a Child

My family and I are getting to spend this Advent season of waiting on a child in a peculiarly special way: by literally waiting on a child.

Arielle is full-term pregnant with our second child–a boy this time. That’s right. Unto us a child will be born! Any day now. As much as we try to go about life as normal until “it’s time,” there’s a beautiful distraction hanging over us. What if today’s the day? What if today is the day I get to meet my son? Is everything ready for him to come? Pretty frequently everything else–even the important and urgent–is pushed out of my mind to make room for questions like these. Can you even imagine the weight of distraction Mary & Joseph must have been under? They must have had so many questions to keep them company on the ride to Bethlehem.

picture5When I think of the utter lack of hospitality the holy parents found when they arrived, I get a bit peeved. No room in the inn? No room anywhere? Really? Nothing? Not a single spare room? No compassionate soul–no fellow mothers–willing to offer even a couch?
But then again, how do you make room for a king in such circumstances? Even the finest suite in David’s town would’ve been inadequate for God-in-the-flesh. Yet, from what little I know of God, I bet the backwoods haystack was actually his top choice. How do you make a place for a God like that? A God who comes not just for a visit to accept the occasional sacrifice, but to live among us? Where do you put a king who won’t stay on his throne? It’s hard to make room for Jesus for two reasons. First, nothing is adequate for the maker of the universe.

Second–and far more uncomfortable–is that no matter what accommodations you do make for Jesus, he never seems to be satisfied with it. I can make up the most comfortable bed with Egyptian cotton sheets, but Jesus is the kind of Emmanuel who marches right past the bed–straight to the closet where I keep all the stuff I try to hide from him. “This is perfect,” he says. “I’ll stay in here.”

In the meantime, while we wait for the arrival of a son, my family makes room. Having a baby means preparing the house and rearranging our schedules and our budget. Plus, we have a toddler so we know it doesn’t take long before children start getting into everything. In regards to waiting for Jesus, yuletide tunes sung this time of year remind “every heart” to “prepare him room.” But be careful when you let him in there because he won’t stay in your heart any longer than he stayed in the stable. Like every baby eventually does, Jesus grew up and starting getting into everything: long-standing traditions, closely-held religious beliefs, social norms, personal secrets. He got into all of it even though no one invited him in. Our hearts are just the manger. Jesus will want our schedules, our secrets, our dreams. He may even literally ask for a room (Matt. 23:35).

Just as having another baby changes everything for Arielle and me, the coming of the Christ Child means that sooner or later, Jesus will be getting into all the things we would rather him leave alone. Even though it will be neither adequate or satisfying to him, there is only one thing to do for Jesus. We make him room.

Save a Little Thanksgiving

There were no leftovers to contend with this year. No reason to scour Pinterest for innovative recipes disguising the remaining turkey, no staying up late with the turkey carcass simmering on the stove bubbling over with a sizzle on the burner, no pie pulling me into its pumpkin or pecan goodness. It’s not that we ate ourselves into an exceedingly more embarrassing stupor than the previous years, we just were guests this year, making a quick trip to be with family in Austin.

I like leftovers – especially the frozen cranberry salad, and the assortment of pies and other desserts that seem to vary year to year. The holiday meal preparation–which can span several days– is so wildly out of proportion to the time spent eating the meal, even if Grandma makes you take time to go around the circle and have everyone name one thing for which he or she is grateful, and leftovers allow the aroma of Thanksgiving to linger.

There isn’t much else that lingers about Thanksgiving, especially as Black Friday now has its start on Thursday afternoon, and has us trading our cornucopia for a cart full of consumerism. Jolting us from an interlude with abundance back into our love affair with scarcity. From counting our blessings to counting our packages.

The season of Advent in the Christian church is upon us. It is a time of great expectation, waiting for the promised Messiah to come. A time of longing for the light to appear in a world of darkness. A time to welcome with joy and love the Christ child into the world and into our hearts, and welcome with joy and love the people He loves. And it comes on the heels of this time of thanksgiving, which seems to me most appropriate. Gratitude is a precursor to hospitality. Without hearts that humbly acknowledge the gifts they have received, there is no room for others. If we hurry through this period of thankfulness, in our eagerness to celebrate the coming of Jesus, our hearts may not have room for that which accompanies his arrival. If we don’t linger in the aroma of the leftovers, the celebration of Christmas may elude us.

Know – Lock – Light

This past summer, there were several local news stories reporting on a spike in property crimes in the College Heights neighborhood of north central Abilene – the same neighborhood to which my family and I just returned after an absence of two years. Many of the crimes being reported were residential break-ins during the day, as well as people having things stolen from their vehicles in the evening.

As it turns out, many (not all) of these thefts have been shown to be crimes of opportunity, with would-be burglars entering homes through unlocked back doors, during the day when people were at work. Or they break into unlocked cars at night when the owners are asleep.

In response to this, CCC is announcing a new program we are calling “Know – Lock – Light,” as part of the Abilene Neighborhood Initiative. CCC’s community coordinators have begun contacting homeowners in College Heights, to discuss neighborhood security concerns and offer practical, proven solutions to the problem of residential burglaries.

Know. I’ve actually had homeowners tell me, “I don’t ever invite neighbors to my house. I’m afraid when they come over, they’re just looking for what they can steal.” While this fear is perhaps understandable, the truth is actually just the opposite. No one is suggesting that you turn your home into a neighborhood community center, but Abilene Police Chief Stan Standridge will tell you that the more of your neighbors you know, the LESS likely you are to become a victim of property crime.

This is why APD is partnering with CCC on our Neighbor-to-Neighbor Network. It’s a program where we encourage neighbors to get to know one another, and provide tips and strategies for meeting neighbors and building relationships together. We know that by working together, neighbors can make their neighborhoods stronger, safer, and more secure. And that’s true for ALL neighborhoods, all across the city.

For these reasons, we are encouraging people to get to know their neighbors right around them – next door, across the street and down the block. You can make a big difference in improving the quality of life for yourself and your neighbors simply by getting to know one another and watching out for each other.

Lock. My grandmother used to say, “Locks only keep honest people honest.” Locks are good for something else as well, though – they make your home or car less attractive to wanna-be criminals. The fact of the matter is, most criminals are lazy. Generally speaking, they’re looking for easy ways to make money. When we leave our doors unlocked, or leave valuable items unprotected, we are essentially allowing ourselves to become victims of these crimes of opportunity. Such crimes can happen very quickly – as I myself recently experienced.

Last month, while we were still in our now-former neighborhood, I was working on my car, and had my tools on the front porch of the house, while I worked on the car in the driveway. When I finished my repairs, I came in the house to do something, and left my tools on the porch for just a moment. Unfortunately, although it was not long, it was long enough, and when I went back outside, my tools were gone. Bang. Just like that.

We’re finding that many people have deadbolts on their front doors, but perhaps not on other doors of their homes, and criminals are often gaining access by coming through unsecured back doors. So we are offering to GIVE homeowners in the College Heights area new deadbolts, and will even help install them if needed.

Light. The final component of this new initiative calls on homeowners to install security lights, again with the intention of making their homes less inviting to would-be thieves. Obviously, most criminals would prefer being in the dark, rather than being in a well-lit area where people can see what they’re doing.

We are offering to install outdoor home security lights to help our neighbors illuminate their property; these lights are very bright and easy to install, and they are battery-powered, so they won’t affect your electric bill. They are motion activated and are an attractive addition to any home.

CCC has begun contacting College Heights homeowners about this program; if it is successful and additional funding becomes available, we could perhaps expand it to other neighborhoods in the future. Meanwhile, these common sense strategies can help us all avoid becoming targets for burglars and thieves.

Know – Lock – Light: Three steps we can all take to make our neighborhoods safer.

For more information, give me a call at 325-513-0807.

Stop “Being” Jesus

This week, I’d like to simply share the words of someone else. What do you do when a published author and sought-after professor uses the art form of his words to portray a thought that you have been preaching by word and deed for eight years? You sigh, “Yes, please,” and kindly step aside.

These are the words of Abilene Christian University Professor of Psychology Dr. Richard Beck from a recent chapel session at ACU. He shares stories of people he chooses to rub elbows with on a weekly basis. After reflecting on a story from the life of Jesus, he offers a challenge to the way we Christians tend to apply our faith to interacting with the marginalized.

Dr. Beck finds some interesting people during his week. He finds a prisoner who–like Jesus–identifies with the woman at the well. He finds a widower who–like Jesus–is a man of sorrows. By choosing to see the overlooked, he finds Jesus.

Does the world need Jesus? Sure. But for me to think that he’s not in a place until I get there is frankly, presumptuous and arrogant. Scripturally, we do not have admonitions to “be Jesus,” but to be imitators of him (Ephesians 5:1) and to follow the example of others following him (1 Corinthians 11:1). And in the account of Mark referenced in the video (Mark 9:36-37), Jesus tells us one great place to find him: in the overlooked.