Creekbank Blog

The writing blog of Curt Iles and Creekbank Stories. Our mission: To connect hearts to God by using stories of encouragement and inspiration.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Pat on the Head

A short story containing an old dog, a famous horse, an eulogy at a country funeral, and ending with a tragic plane crash, will be one of two things: It will either be a forgettable tangle of tales that leave a reader frustrated.

Or it may be a wonderfully woven story imparting lessons that can change our lives.

My hope is that it is the latter. You—the reader—will decide.

Ivory is our thirteen- year Yellow Labrador. As you’ve probably noticed, I write about her quite often.

It’s because she’s the best dog I’ve ever owned.

And she is obviously in the last days of her life.

Ivory is completely deaf and sleeps much of the day away on her dog bed. Getting up is difficult for her, and lifting her hundred pounds into the bed of my truck is no easy task for me. In addition, she suffers from severe seizures.

In spite of her deteriorating physical condition, her spirit is still strong. The bright intelligent eyes, that make Labs the best-loved breed of all, still glow.

She keeps a perpetual smile on her face and spends most of the day beside me as I write.

Ivory on the cover of The Old House, my second book.

My mother often comments, “Curt, you’re going to miss her bad when she’s gone.”

I know that’s true.

Ivory may outlive me, but I rather doubt it. The odds are that one morning I’ll go out and find her dead.

Because I know her time with me is short, I don’t walk by her without petting her on the head.

It’s a habit I have.

It’s something she expects and also something I must do.

Because I know the day is coming when I won’t have her around.

Recently, I heard a wonderful podcast tribute to Traveller, the most famous horse of the Civil War.

For anyone who knows Southern history, Traveller was the white horse that Robert E. Lee rode throughout the Civil War.**

The author shared how General Lee would not walk past Traveller* without some sort of nudge or pet. Even in the midst of battle, he’d absentmindedly walk over to his horse and stroke him.

*General Lee used the British spelling for "Traveller" by adding the extra l.

I understand why he did that. There was a connection between them that nothing could break. They’d been through so much together, shared the hardships of battle and camp life, and formed a deep unspoken bond.

After the war ended, Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, VA, and Traveller, the most famous horse in America, lived in the field beside the president’s home.

Passerby would often see the two recognizable figures in the yard. The majestic white horse and the white-bearded Virginian as Lee fed sugar cubes to his friend.

While away on a trip, Lee wrote his wife, “How is Traveller? Tell him that I miss him dreadfully, and have repented over our separation but once: and that is the whole time since we parted.”

Robert E. Lee died in 1870 and was buried in the chapel at Washington College. Traveller only outlived him by two years before succumbing to tetanus from stepping on a nail.

As was appropriate, the horse was buried just outside the wall of the General’s resting place.

General Lee would understand all about my pats on the head for Ivory.

And I certainly identify with his great love for a faithful animal.

At a funeral last week, I thought about this trait of showing our affection to those we love this week. It was at the memorial service for Mr. David Reeves, who had a large and close extended family.

His son, Buddy, gave a stirring eulogy about his father. Buddy shared how his dad, in his younger days, was often hard on him and found it difficult to verbally express his love for them.

Then twenty years ago, David Reeves had a serious seizure that changed all of that. Buddy shared how from that moment when his father realized how fleeting life could be, he never missed an opportunity to tell each and every family member how much he loved them.

As I looked around at the Reeves family as they buried their father, grandfather, and great grandfather, I realized each knew with certainty how they were loved. They knew it because he’d told them repeatedly—and they had in return returned his words of love.

It was very evident there was one thing missing at this funeral: There was no regret. Everything that needed to be said within a family had been lovingly said. They’d taken care of him throughout this time of declining health.

Mr. David Reeves had given his family a great gift: Open expressions of his love.

I would call this the verbal equivalent of my pat on the hand of Ivory.

It spoke volumes.

My own family, the Iles and Plotts, have given me a wonderful legacy. However, neither family was much on saying, “I love you.” I’m not sure I heard my dad say that a dozen times in his life. However, he was such a great father that I never doubted it, due to his actions and kindness toward my sisters and me.

I was determined to change this verbal communication with my own children. From the day we brought each boy home from the hospital, I “practiced” telling them I how much I loved them.

I’m still doing it today. I never let a conversation end without an expression of how much I love them and how proud I am of them.

I’m also practicing it on my grandsons now.

I want them to have “that pat on the head” that tells them how highly I think of them. That way they’ll never have reason to doubt my love.

This morning (March 27), I listened to a touching segment on NBC’s Today show. Ann Curry was interviewing Louis Pullen, who lost a grown child and grandchildren in a plane crash last week.

Fourteen people—all headed on a ski trip—died when their plane nosedived into the ground.

Mr. Pullen, who shared emotionally about the lives of family and friends on the plane, closed the interview by looking directly into the camera. “I want to tell everyone to value their family. Tell them how much you love them, because you never know.”

His words—and the way he said them—stabbed deeply into my heart.

I want to live my life where those I love never doubt my love.

I want to express it with my actions, but I also wish to express it with my words—both verbally and written.

“A pat on the head” to those who mean the world to me; an expression of love that will outlive both the giver and receiver.

To live with no regrets.

That’s a good goal to have.

To say what needs to be said—and do it now.

A pat on the head—or a word from the heart.

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.

Explore. Dream. Discover

-Mark Twain

**James David Cain, one of my history teachers, once put this bonus question on a test: “What was the color of General Lee’s white horse?”

It’s hard to believe but some genius missed it, putting “tan” as the answer.

Following this blog entry are four more dog stories for your enjoyment.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Friend named Ivory

From the book, The Mockingbird’s Song by Curt Iles

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing … not healing, not curing … that is a friend who cares.”
–Henri Nouwen

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).

I don’t plan to ride out another hurricane. That bad girl named Hurricane Rita (the younger sister of Katrina) made a mess of SW Louisiana. My night of riding out the storm was an unforgettable time of falling trees, roaring wind, rain blowing sideways, and all types of crises from the three hundred evacuees we were sheltering at our church camp.*
However, my constant companion on that night was my faithful lab, Ivory. She stayed beside me as I fitfully tried to sleep on the couch in my office. When I had to venture out into the storm to deal with a problem, she slipped out the door with me, in spite of her great fear of bad weather.

Nearly a year after the hurricane, on a hot August summer day, my friend Ivory sits faithfully beside me. The porch at “The Old House” has very little breeze today and the sweat runs down my arms onto my hands and onto the laptop keyboard. She is panting heavily as dogs do to sweat.

Yet my friend Ivory doesn’t mind the heat. She’s content to be here with me—her friend. Now some people may not consider a dog a special friend, but I do. Ivory, a yellow Labrador retriever, has been my constant companion for over twelve years. Even though she belongs to my son Clint, she really loves me the best. Well, at least that is what I tell Clint, who is now married and living in Mississippi.

Five years ago during the darkest days of my depression, Ivory sat faithfully beside me each day. She didn’t ask questions but attentively listened as I spoke to her. Her heavy tail would loudly thump on the porch floor whenever I spoke even one word. It was as if she was just happy to hear my voice, no matter what I might be saying.

Thinking back to Ivory’s faithfulness and the comfort of her presence, I think about three biblical friends with the unusual names of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. You are probably like me and not familiar with these men. I’m not even sure about the pronunciation of their names, especially when you attach their surnames. The Bible, in the book of Job chapter 2, calls them:
Eliphaz the Temanite,
Bildad the Shuhite, and
Zophar the Naamathite.

Even if you don’t recognize them and their mouthful of names, you’ve probably heard about them. I’ve heard countless sermons on the godly man named Job. Usually the speaker will refer to them collectively as “Job’s three friends.” Several times I’ve heard this comment attached, “With friends like those three, who needs enemies?”

Regardless of how they’ve been given a slightly bum rap because of their later shortcomings, they started out good. When they heard of the tragedies that had befallen Job, they were distraught. In the space of a few days, Job had lost everything that seemed to matter—his family, his flocks, material wealth, and then his health.

These three men made plans to go check on their friend. As they neared they didn’t even recognize their formerly prosperous neighbor who sat on a pile of ashes scratching his festering sores and boils with a shard of broken pottery.

Here is how Job 2:12 describes this sad scene: “And when they raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognize him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven.”

However, they did something that we should learn from: They came … even though their hearts were heavy … they came.

Even though what they saw tore at their souls … they stayed.
Even though they did not know what to say or do … they gave Job the gift of their presence.
It is so easy to avoid those who are hurting deeply … the terminal cancer patient awaiting death in hospice care; the co-worker going through the devastation of the death of a marriage and the pain it brings; the mother who has just buried a young child; the friend or relative in the depths of depression who has drawn the blinds at home and sunk into self-imposed isolation.
We don’t go and we use the excuse, “I just don’t know what I would say.”

Take a lesson from a dog, named Ivory: you don’t have to say much of anything—your presence is enough.

Hurting folks don’t need a sermon or psychoanalysis; they need a shoulder to lean on. A hand to hold. A short, quiet prayer. Your presence is what they need.

Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar understood about that need to simply be quietly present as evidenced by their next actions:
“So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:13).

These guys arrived and saw the devastation of their friend. His grief was so deep that they never said a word for seven days! They even sat on the ground—that heap of ashes—with their grieving friend, Job.

What an example of the ministry of simply being there!

This art of being present reminds me of my best friend, Joe. Joe Aguillard and his wife Judy have been our best friends for over thirty years. DeDe and I have raised our three boys with their three precious girls. As families we’ve been with each other during the joys of life as well as the sorrowful and traumatic times.

When our son Clint suffered a serious hip dislocation playing high school football, DeDe and I ended up in the second hospital of this long night after two rough and scary ambulance rides. Tough decisions awaited us as the orthopedic doctors shared the options on treating Clint’s hip.
During this traumatic night, about 2 a.m., is when Joe and Judy Aguillard walked into the hospital emergency room in Lake Charles. I don’t remember what they said, or how long they stayed, I just remember that our best friends were there to sit beside us.

Several years later I sat by Joe and Judy at a hospital in Alexandria as they dealt with a serious situation of one of their daughters. In this ICU waiting room, they didn’t need my words or a sermon, they just needed friends to be there to sit, pray, and listen.

Often folks don’t show up at tough times because they don’t know “what to say.” The answer to this is simple: Show up anyway and don’t say much. Just listen and be present.
A recent Dear Abby8 column brought a ton of letters weighing in on what is proper to wear to funerals. The literary combatants all explained their views on wearing black, white, or bright colors. However the last printed letter that day summed up the power of presence in times of grief. The writer simply stated, “After my father’s funeral, I could tell you who was there, but not what one single person was wearing. Sometimes what you wear doesn’t matter. The respect people show outweighs everything else.”

This lady who wrote Dear Abby understood that what matters is presence—and at no time is presence more needed than when a person is hurting.

At the graveside service of a recent funeral I conducted, I asked the family if there was anything they’d like for me to say to the gathered crowd. As the brother of the deceased looked around at the crowd, he said, “Thank them for coming. Many of you took a day off from work to come and others drove a long way to be with us. Please thank them.” It didn’t matter that most of the attendees were in jeans and simple work clothes. What mattered was that they came.
We don’t know how Job’s friends dressed but we do know they came and took the risk of going and being there with their friend.

The bad reputation of these three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, proceeds from the fact that after that one week of sympathetically listening and sitting, they began to attempt to explain why these tragedies had happened to Job.

The commonly held Jewish belief of this time was: “Godly people only have good things happen to them. Therefore if bad things occur, you’ve sinned and made God mad.” After one week of silent ministry, these three friends began a series of helpful “seminars” for Job. If God hadn’t finally shut them up later, they might still be waxing eloquently as they explained all of their presumptive reasoning to Job.

If you’ve never read the book of Job, I encourage you to get a readable translation and study this fascinating story.

Job’s story, especially how his friends come to see him, is a good reminder that folks hurting, especially those in depression, need our presence. What makes it hard is that those in depression don’t want others around. They will literally hide to avoid contact with others. That is a symptom of the illness—a longing for isolation while avoiding what we need most—human interaction, loving touch, and compassion.

Recently, a younger man who is like a son to me went through an extremely difficult period in his life. Much of his pain was self-inflicted but he dearly needed friends, especially men, to minister to him. Sadly, he felt that the men of our community and church had let him down. Even as I reminded him of men who had tried to help him, a sense of deep disappointment was evident in his words.

Finally, I said, “When I was sick and depressed and didn’t leave the house for weeks, why didn’t you come see me?” His answer has never left my heart and hopefully continues to motivate me to be “busy with the ministry of presence.”

He told me, “I couldn’t stand to see you that way and I didn’t know what to say.”
It convicted me that I had used that same flimsy excuse to avoid visiting others who were hurting.

Recently, I had the opportunity to “practice what I’m now preaching.” I received word that the father of three of my best lifelong friends, Danny, Larry, and David Cole had drowned. Their father, Mr. Olen Cole, had always been one of my favorite people. As I rushed to the Cole pond, I hurriedly prayed for them as they faced one of the greatest trials a family can have. I also silently asked God to use me to comfort them.

Driving up to the field filled with police cars and an ambulance, I saw David and his wife Deleta walking from the pond across the open field toward the home of David’s parents. I knew he was going to break the terrible news to his mother. I hurriedly caught up with them. All I could do was put my hand on David’s shoulder and walk with him. I told him I loved him, loved his family, and would go with them if he needed me to. As we neared the house I uttered a short prayer asking for God’s grace to be with this family right now.

Then I simply shut up. That is not easy for me because I like to talk: I want to comfort and help. But David Cole, his mom, and brothers did not need my words on this day. They just needed me to be there. That hand on the shoulder and hot tears running down my cheeks was the greatest service I could give. Many times words are not needed whereas our physical presence is.

May I learn (and re-learn) this lesson: the lesson of Job’s three friends who came, stayed, and didn’t speak for a week. And may we remember the wonderful seven-day testimony of Job’s three friends—who left their families, fields, and flocks to sit mutefully with their grieving friend. And may we remember others don’t need our words or advice nearly as much as they need our touch and physical presence.

May we remember the lesson of Ivory the yellow lab—Just “being there and thumping your tail” is what others often need most. Ivory is always ready to look into my eyes, saying little but showing great love.

Showing such great love and presence that no words are needed …
A friend.
A faithful friend, even in the storm.
A good example from a faithful, twelve-year-old friend named Ivory.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ivory "guarding" the office.

“Sugar and Ivory”

From the Curt Iles book, Hearts across the Water

It's odd but I will always think of two dogs when I think of the long night that Hurricane Rita struck Dry Creek Camp.

We had 350 people on our grounds. They had been moved and bedded down in our most solid dorms and everyone took enough food and water for the next thirty hours when we were told to expect strong winds. Flashlights and radios were distributed and we locked down and awaited the storm.

DeDe and Terry had gone north to Harrisonburg with all of my immediate family. I went home and double checked our house and yard. Driving back to the camp I looked at my field of young pines and wondered how different they would look by this time tomorrow.

As I left the house to return to the camp, I loaded up one of our most prized possessions- our yellow Labrador, Ivory. She has been my faithful friend for over eight years. If you've seen one of my first three books she graces the cover of each one.

Back at the camp office we made a pad for her on the floor. Ivory is very scared of storms. She has pushed her way into the house during loud thunderstorms. At ninety pounds she is hard to drag out when she gets under a table during lightning and thunder.

I commented to everyone that I'd brought Ivory to comfort her during the storm. But I'd really brought her because I wanted her comfort for me.

When I went through a personal storm in my life, Ivory was always there for me. I suffered through a terrible time of deep depression in 2000. During that dark time Ivory always sat by me in the long days and nights of hopelessness. She never gave me a word of advice but simply gave me her full and undivided attention.

God healed me through a wonderful combination of His grace, great doctors, medication, and time. Among that combination of healing things was a dog named Ivory. Animals have the ability to heal and calm. There is something about petting a dog that brings soothing and solace.

It is no coincidence that many therapy centers use pets as part of their rehabilitation. A stroke victim seeking to regain arm movement can pet a dog as part of their therapy. It heals physically as well as emotionally.

Ivory had been that friend of solace in my life. I wanted her company during this stormy night. Our rat terrier, Eddie was left at the house. We'd prepared him a place in the carport garage where he can be far from the storm but still go in and out. I would have liked to have brought Eddie to the camp also but he is still on probation. Every time I've ever brought him to the camp he has gotten in some kind of trouble. Last time I brought him for a nighttime work session he hid from me in the office. As I got ready to leave the office, he was no where to be found. I wondered how he had gotten outside. I searched all over the office and drove through the grounds. The next morning I posted "Lost Dog" posters at the store and post office.

After these hours of searching and asking, I discovered him hiding behind the door up on Diane's couch smiling contentedly at me after a good night's rest in the comfort of AC. So Eddie is not making the Rita road trip to the camp. I can see the little nervous terrier escaping outside and us hunting for him in the midst of the hurricane.

About 11:30 p.m. we lose our electricity. We communicate on the two-way radios throughout the camp. I stretch out on the office couch in the dark and try to rest.

From time to time I put my hand down to touch Ivory. It is good to have her with me. In spite of the blowing winds and flying debris, she sleeps peacefully.

The first radio SOS call comes after midnight. A frantic voice says, "I've got a boy in cabin 7 who has quit breathing and is turning blue." I pull on my raincoat and rush to the cabin. A teenaged Katrina evacuee is laid out on a dorm porch bench. He is breathing but having a hard time. The wind whips and whistles all around us as he seeks to get his breath.

Our paramedic Shane arrives. I am so thankful that he has been with us during the many medical crises of these past weeks. Lewis is hyperventilating and can't seem to calm down. Shane works with him and lets us all know that Lewis is evidently having an anxiety attack. I look around at the worried faces of those from the neighboring dorms.

This is a dorm where we had had some suspected drug abuse in the past week. We'd even had the police drug dog come out to inspect our dorms. I wonder if this teen’s problem is related to that.

After the evacuee begins to calm down and breathe better, someone grabs Shane and says, "Come next door, there's a dog that is really sick." Shane leaves and later returns muttering, "I can help people but I don't know much about dogs." One of the evacuees tells me that this dog is having a hard time with the storm.

I walk next door and meet Sugar. She is a rat terrier, just like Eddie. It is quickly evident from his gray muzzle and few teeth that Sugar is very old. She is held by Mrs. Shirley, age 80, whom we call "Nanny."

This rat terrier greatly resembles Sugar

Sugar is in great distress. Her eyes are bulging out in fear and her breathing is labored and loud. Knowing rat terriers and their high strung tendencies I am aware that Sugar is having an anxiety attack of her own.

Nanny holds him closely and talks soothingly to her but to little avail. This dog knows that something very wrong is up with the weather and is instinctively fearful of it.

Standing there as the wind blows the rain sideways on us on the dorm porch, I recall stories of the water buffaloes in Indonesia. Several Indonesia men collaborated the following to me:

When the strong 9.0 earthquake occurred on the morning of December 26, buildings and structures crumbled. There was much damage even far inland from the coast. Fortunately there was little human injury due to the initial earthquake tremors. People ran outside in confusion as they looked around and checked on each other.

It would be fifteen to thirty minutes before the first tsunami wave would arrive. During this interim time of confusion an event occurred that many noticed but only later would understand: The water buffaloes, an important part of rural farming in Asia, broke loose from tethers and pens and maddeningly ran inland for higher ground.

Evidently an instinctive knowledge of the coming wave was sensed by these animals. Ropes and pens that had held the buffaloes secure were snapped and trampled as the bewildered beasts fled.

Looking back at Sugar the rat terrier I am aware that she senses a terrible occurrence just as those water buffaloes did. No soothing words or petting can calm Sugar down.

Over at dorm seven, our hyperventilating evacuee is now settled down so we push everyone back into their dorms and urge them to stay inside.

Going back to the truck someone shouts above the howling wind, "This big dog looks like she is limping because she is hurt." It is Ivory. She's just limping along with her arthritic hips. A big smile is on her face as she tromps through the standing water. She must have followed me out of the office. Why she isn't scared I don't know. We quickly load her up in the bed of the truck and head back to the office.

The rest of the night is a long story of falling trees, emergency calls to other dorms, and little or no sleep. But as I lay on the couch in the office, I can feel Ivory on the floor beside me. Her snoring and breathing brings a comfort of her own.

The storm's fury is at its worst just before dawn. Trees have fallen everywhere. Throughout the day hurricane followed by then tropical force winds continue to fell trees. Midmorning, a radio blares out, "Another tree just fell over by the Henhouse on a trailer." I know it has to be the home of Frank and Janet Bogard. Frank rushes down there to find a big pine on his trailer but it is lodged up against the roof with little damage. It is one more miracle of this storm that none of our buildings are severely damaged.

Later that evening as the winds abate, I walk over to Dorm 7. Everyone is okay but a lady Madeline tells me, "Sugar didn't make it." She points to a small fresh grave with a twig-made cross on it. I'm not surprised at Sugar's death. A heart can only take so much.

I promise them that we will get a small marker placed there. Nanny is sitting there on the porch. She looks much older than even her eighty years belies. Losing your home in an earlier storm is a terrible thing. Losing a beloved pet in another storm, especially a pet of fifteen years, is a great loss not to be underestimated.

The night that Rita came ashore will always be remembered. It will not be forgotten for the people of southwest Louisiana, whether they stayed or went north. The hours of waiting and wondering were tedious. At the camp we will always remember the faces of the evacuees. Full of concern, stress, yet resolution as the storm approached and blew through.

But even after time has faded their faces and I've forgotten many of their names, I'll measure this night by the faces of two dogs: a country yellow lab named Ivory and a New Orleans terrier called Sugar.


Friday, March 27, 2009

No Man Can Serve Two Masters

From the 2002 book by Curt Iles, The Old House

Most days I carry my dog, Ivory to work with me. When she sees me lower the tailgate of the truck, she begins dancing excitedly. Ivory is a large yellow Labrador Retriever. She really belongs to my son Clint, who bought her five years ago. Because I spend a lot of time with her at work, I like to pick at Clint and say Ivory is really my dog. He quickly reminds me that he is the one who paid good money for her, and therefore she belongs to him.

At the camp, Ivory loves to sit outside the door of whatever building I’m in. Faithfully, she waits in the shade for me to come out. The only exception to this is when I enter the Dining Hall. No matter which of the seven doors I enter, she quickly goes to the side door where campers exit after meals. She has learned this door is the prime spot to beg scraps from campers.

When I leave the Dining Hall and don’t see her, I give my Grandpa’s hog dog call and she comes running around the corner of the building- full of camp biscuits and ready once again to be my faithful companion.

Recently, Clint and I walked out of the camp office together. As we exited outside, there was Ivory grinning her silly smile, as she expectantly thumped her big tail against the wall. I challenged Clint to a test, “Clint, let’s stop here and find out who Ivory really loves the most. You go north to the road and I’ll go east to the Tabernacle. Whom she follows will show her true allegiance.” He reluctantly agreed to my challenge. I was confident she would follow me because of how faithfully she always follows me each day.

We both agreed not to look back until we had walked to our respective spots. As I walked the seventy-five feet to the Tabernacle, I expected at any time to hear the sound of her steps behind me. I held off looking for as long as I could. Reaching the sidewalk I stopped, and looked over to Clint. He had also stopped at his spot, the same distance from our starting point, but Ivory had followed neither of us. There she sat right where we’d left her, anxiously looking back and forth from one of us to the other. She excitedly wagged her tail and moved her front legs as if to come to one of us. Then she resumed her looking as if she was saying “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe....”

as we approached each other, Ivory left her spot and ran to us, arriving just as we met.

I felt guilty for putting her in such a tough position. I promised Clint that I would not bother him anymore about whom Ivory loved best. She evidently loved both of us equally.

The words of Jesus came to me as I thought about Ivory’s allegiance. Jesus clearly stated that no man can serve two masters. In the Sermon on the Mount, he clearly spoke of allegiance and dedication,

“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

In this case Jesus compared serving God or worshipping money- Which is a good illustration because most of us find this decision to be a tough one. However, no one should congratulate themselves too much because all of have at least one major area that appeals to us, yet blocks our relationship to God.

The scariest part is this: many times, we stand and look back and forth at which master we will serve. The other object drawing us away from God is often something good, but anything that blocks our communion and dedication to God is harmful, no matter what it is. We must not settle for good when we can have the best- a close intimate relationship with Jesus. Jesus meant it when he said we can only serve one master. I saw this very principle in a humorous, but dramatic, way recently at Dry Creek Camp.

One of our joys at camp is planning events for folks to attend. Most of the time during the year we host church groups of all types. On many of these weekends we will plan events, such as ladies retreats and couples events, for folks from various churches to attend.

Recently, we scheduled two separate events for the same weekend. At our Adult Center we held a couples retreat. This is always one of our favorite events. Couples arrive Friday evening, tired and frazzled from a busy

week. Beginning with the evening meal, we pamper them and take care of every need they have. There is always a couple who leads this program of marriage enrichment. Our Adult Center allows these guests to mix and learn together while at the same time giving each couple needed privacy to be together away from the demands of their busy lives.

These couple’s events are attended by a wide range of folks. Most of these couples are young, but we will have one or two older couples, sometimes in their sixties or older. Just like the younger ones, they are here to learn more about making the coming years of their marriage the best yet.

Among our couples there are always a few who qualify as “eager wives/reluctant husbands.” I can spot them quickly; the men look as if they are there for a public hanging- their own. Usually as I sign them in, the husband will whisper to me, “Now, this wasn’t my idea, but to keep the peace I came.” Or they’ll reveal a bribe, “She told me if I’d come to this, I could go fishing at Toledo next weekend.”

The neatest thing to watch is how over the weekend, many of these “reluctant husbands” enjoy the retreat best of all. They relax, make new friends, laugh, and enjoy falling in love all over again with the woman they love. As the couples arrive in the dining hall, we make sure they all sit together and meet other couples. Soon a magical sound starts. I call it the “sound of fellowship.” Here’s how it sounds: It begins as a low buzz as people begin to visit, and it’s accompanied by the sound of silverware clinking. Soon, a new sound enters this symphony. It’s my favorite Friday night sound- the sound of laughter. It lets us know these strangers are beginning to come together as new friends as they relax in the special environment that occurs at camp. I firmly believe this sound of fellowship is used by the Holy Spirit to lay the foundation for the spiritual victories to be won tonight and throughout the weekend.

After the meal, the couples walk in small groups back to the Adult Center, better known at Dry Creek as the “White House.” Because darkness has now fallen, we hand out flashlights to each couple. I always enjoy reminding them that there had better not be any kissing or hanky-panky on the trail back to the White House.

Then the first session begins. I like to quietly sit in the lobby and just listen. We are blessed with great leaders who know so much about marriages and have the ability to present it in a creative and fun way. I’ve never seen a Friday session that didn’t have eruptions of hearty laughter all evening.

Sometimes as the couples share, it sounds like the old Newlywed Game from the 1970's. Listening carefully, the loudest laughter seems to come from those reluctant husbands. I silently thank God for what He is doing in the lives of these precious couples. I’m also thankful we have a facility to minister to these adults. Our passion and priority is reaching young people, but when we can be a part of seeing God strengthen marriages, we are equally thrilled. Anytime marriages are strengthened, everyone wins.

Now, I want to tell you about our other event of this same weekend. Each year in February we sponsor a one-day “Turkey Hunting Seminar.” This event is planned and carried out by one of our retired employees and special friends, Joe Watson. I jokingly refer to Joe as our “head turkey.”

This Saturday seminar has grown into a well-attended event. During the entire day, these dedicated hunters get together and “talk turkey.” They have calling contests, go to the rifle range to pattern their shotguns, and trade stories all day long. Turkey hunters are among the most passionate of all hunters and the men, women, and young people who attend, are no exception.

They bring stuffed turkey mounts, turkey decoys, calls, pictures of prize birds, magazines, and anything else that has anything to do with turkey hunting. One year, our area’s best hunter, C.W. Caraway, brought the beard and tail feathers of his state record turkey. Everyone reverently gathered around as if the Hope diamond was on display.

In addition, we usually have a local taxidermist bring several mounts of various animals. Often, Mark Atkinson will set up one of his hunting stands in the Dining Hall. By the time the seminar gets going, the room is filled with excited hunters and paraphernalia of every type.

One thing all of these hunters have in common is their apparel. Every person, even down to the smallest child brought by his dad, is outfitted in camouflage. Turkey hunters are experts at hiding themselves from this intelligent and wary bird. Every camouflage pattern known to man is modeled on this day.

Walking into the dining hall, there is so much camo and surplus army clothing that you’ll wonder if you’ve stumbled upon the annual convention of one of those radical militia groups from Montana. However, the best part of this event is the spiritual emphasis throughout the day. Several of our turkey hunters give devotions from God’s word. They use analogies from hunting to share the gospel and the power of God. We are always thrilled at the number of unchurched folks who attend this event. Anytime, we can invite people on to our grounds and share with them concerning the great love of God, is always a great opportunity.

One year Ricci Hicks, a hunter from Longville, shared a devotion using his calls and gear. His talk was entitled, “How Satan deceives men.” Using each of his hunting items and techniques, he really brought home about the methods the devil uses to attack men.

On this February Saturday morning, the turkey hunters fill up one end of the dining hall as they meet, laugh, learn, and drink our coffee pots dry. As we get ready for lunch on the other end of the Dining Hall, it never enters my mind as to the conflict we are going to have in this Dining Hall in a few minutes.

Soon our couples group, after finishing their morning session, will be coming to the dining hall for lunch. After their meal, they will return to the White House for one final afternoon session on this Valentine weekend.

So, get this picture. In fact, I know some of you are even ahead of me. Standing on one end of the dining hall is a group of sixty camouflaged turkey hunters. On the other side of that very front door are twenty-five couples ready to come in and eat. It had never even entered my mind about the conflict that this would create.

As soon as the couples came in, I knew we had trouble. The first expression I saw of it came from one of my favorite couples, Kevin and Cathy Willis. Kevin is one of my best friends in the whole world. As I shared earlier in this book, he is my duck hunting partner and fellow deacon. He is a big burly man with a heart as big to match his body. He is passionate about anything he does- singing, hunting, being a good dad, and especially following Jesus. However, when he comes through the door and sees all of the hunting stuff spread throughout the dining hall, he looks as if he is going to be sick. This is the expression of a man who loves the outdoors and hunting and has just discovered how he has missed the opening day of hunting season.

His wife Cathy’s face is just as passionate. As Kevin gazes longingly at the hunting gear, Cathy has the same look of a woman who sees her husband ogling a younger woman. She is ready to try to drag him away from temptation and back to the White House.

Most of the couples there have the same kind of reactions to some varying extent. Every country man worth his salt likes to hear about hunting and see camouflage, whether he likes to hunt or not. As the couples begin going through the serving line, several of the men comment to me concerning my lack of foresight in putting a couples’ retreat and hunting seminar on the same weekend.

Kevin wants a vow from me, “Bro. Curt, please promise me you won’t ever schedule another couples event on turkey hunter’s weekend.”

I try apologizing to these men from the Valentines Couples’ Retreat. Finally, I give the only comment I can think of, “Sorry guys, but no man can serve two masters.”

Although this story is humorous and probably slightly exaggerated, (that’s called “literary license.”) the principle behind it is serious, when we attempt to serve two masters, we will be completely miserable.

As the couples leave the dining hall, some of the husbands look back longingly with the same gaze I imagine Lot’s wife had as she looked back on Sodom. But I hope they realize the joy that comes from sacrificing what you want or enjoy for someone you love. There is a great difference between these two and much of our happiness and fulfillment in life comes from right choices between things and people.

Yes, Jesus hit the nail on the head. We cannot serve two masters. Just as Ivory whined at being unable to choose between her two masters and my hunting buddies were torn between their wives and camouflage, we are most unhappy when we are in the no man’s land of attempted dual allegiance.

Sometimes, the most miserable person in the world is not the person who has no room for God in their life. Yes, that person is unhappy and unfulfilled. However, there is probably no worse spot to be in than attempting to be both a follower of Jesus and the world. May we constantly be reminded of the love and grace of Jesus. Let us never forget His strong call for us to forsake this world and our own wants to wholeheartedly follow Him, this Amazing Jesus, the Son of the Living God.

“Then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…

…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” -Joshua 24:15


Thursday, March 19, 2009

A honeysuckle bouquet from Crooked Bayou Swamp

The sweet smell of honeysuckle
(And the beauty of dogwoods)

I live in the deep South by choice.
In spite of any shortcomings Louisiana may have, it has been a wonderful place to raise our family and live life to the fullest.

There is one month when I’m most glad to be a "Louisianian."

It’s March.

And there are two major reasons why.
The first is the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle.

The second is the visual fragrance of white dogwoods under green pines.

Last week I saw my first honeysuckle blooms of 2009.
As always, it made me think of my friend, Eleanor Andrews.
The following story will explain why.

The Sweet Smell of Honeysuckle

When spring arrives and everything is blooming, I always make time to go into Dry Creek swamp to check on the honeysuckle. Because I’ve spent all of my life in the Deep South, I don’t know if wild honeysuckle bushes are found all over America. I simply know that when they bloom in early March there is nothing prettier or sweeter to smell.

The honeysuckle, or wild azalea as it is often called, is actually a small tree that more resembles a bush. It is found naturally along small streams and creeks, and doesn’t grow very large. Other than a few weeks in the spring, it is unnoticed and unremarkable. However, when it blooms, it outshines every other tree or shrub in the swamp.

Another thing that makes it so special is its rarity. You won’t find it growing along roadsides. Normally, you have to get off the beaten path to find honeysuckle. The fragrance of its pale pink blossoms is hard to describe.

The “honey” in honeysuckle is the best way I know to describe its smell. It has a sweet smell that is pleasant to the nose and once you’ve enjoyed it, you never forget it.

Many times I’ve been in the woods after a March rain and smelled honeysuckle long before I was near enough to see the bushes.

Because I’m on a honeysuckle kick and thinking about enjoying the little things in life, I even have my co-worker, Debra Tyler, who loves the outdoors as much as I do, put on the sign at the camp entrance, “Don’t forget to stop and smell the honeysuckle.”

During honeysuckle season, I always love to bring my wife, DeDe, a bouquet of honeysuckle. She places them in a vase which she then sets on the kitchen table. For several days, the fragrance greets you the instant you enter the house. That pungent, indescribable smell always makes me smile inside. It reminds me of childhood Sunday afternoon walks in the woods with my family. It was a time of less rushing about when people took more time to be together, often in the outdoors.

Honeysuckle time is when I always think of Mrs. Eleanor Andrews. No one in Dry Creek loves flowers, gardens, and plants more than Mrs. Andrews. Even though she has been an invalid for many years, she still has the prettiest yard in our community. She loves to sit by her window and point out the tulips, periwinkles, dogwoods, azaleas, and countless flowers as they each bloom in their respective seasons. Mrs. Andrews, my beloved fifth grade teacher, taught practically every young person in Dry Creek for over two decades. This sweet lady loves honeysuckle, and nature, as much as anyone I know.

Each year her son Charlie, who had a doctorate in horticulture, would bring her a beautiful bouquet of honeysuckle blossoms from the woods. She’d proudly display it on her kitchen table. When Charlie died suddenly a few years ago, spring came and the time for her honeysuckle bouquet arrived.

Loretta Bushnell Langley, who takes special care of Mrs. Andrews, told her dad about Charlie’s bouquet. Sure enough the next week, Mrs. Andrews had her annual bouquet—picked and prepared by Jessie Bushnell. I can just see Jessie driving up in his old truck with a bedful of barking dogs riding in the back. Dressed in his welder’s cap and old overalls, he joyfully brings this gift to this special lady. I know how Jessie feels—just as if he is in elementary school again, bringing an apple to his favorite teacher.

Now, my annual job is to bring Mrs. Andrews a Christmas tree. I still break out in a cold sweat hoping the tree I selected meets her exacting eye. Once again I’m ten years old, handing in my multiplication tables to Eleanor Andrews.

I’m sure Jesse thinks the same thing as me when he approaches her porch, “Will I have this privilege next year, or will she be gone?” She is over eighty and not in good health. She has been my special friend for nearly forty years, and I can’t imagine spring in Dry Creek without her presence.

Last week, Mrs. Andrews fell and hit her head. She was sent to the nearby Kinder hospital where they discovered she had double pneumonia. Then, she had a heart attack and was rushed to a larger hospital in Lake Charles. Since then she has steadily gone down.

. . . It's early March and she lays in the hospital fighting for her life . . . It’s early spring and the plants are blooming here in Dry Creek. It’s hard to believe Eleanor Andrews will probably die in the middle of her favorite time of year. I’d always thought she would leave us in the dead of winter, when the trees were bare and her garden was empty.

That night I returned late from a meeting. As I neared home in the darkness, I stopped at the bridge over Mill Bayou anyway. In a light rain, I climbed the barbed wire fence and stepped carefully in the darkness toward the creek. I had my flashlight to watch for snakes. With its light, I found what I was looking for—a small honeysuckle bush. I picked a bouquet of honeysuckle. The smell, so sweet and fragrant in the heavy night air, reminds me of how much I love spring.

Arriving home from my honeysuckle expedition, I carefully placed my bouquet in a green vase with water. The next morning, bouquet in hand, I left early for the drive to St. Patrick’s hospital in Lake Charles.

Quietly, I eased in to the ICU where Mrs. Eleanor Andrews lay surrounded by tubes and monitors, her face covered with an oxygen mask. When she sees me, I’m greeted with the smile that has lit up my life since I was eleven years old. I lean down close because her voice is very weak. In spite of the effort required to speak, she begins talking non-stop, the smile never leaving her face.

Most of what she says I cannot understand because of the oxygen mask. However, she says one thing that I hear very clearly. She looks me squarely in the eyes and says weakly, “I’m going home today.”

For a moment I think she’s confused and believes she is going to her home in Dry Creek. When she reads the confusion on my face, she repeats in a stronger voice and with more emphasis on the word “home.”
“No, I’m going home today.
The look in her eyes and the smile on her face tell me even more than her words. She is going home and she’s looking forward to it. She has suffered enough, most of her loved ones are already on the other side, and she’s ready to go. Nothing, not even her beloved flowers and yard in Dry Creek, can cause her to stay on this earth any longer.

I lean down and kiss her on the cheek one last time. Walking out of the cubicle, I look back for one final glance. There, on the stand by her bed, is the green vase of pink honeysuckle.

One last time I look back at her face, still smiling in spite of the oxygen mask covering her face. Once more, I glance at the honeysuckle bouquet, then wave goodbye, and walk away.

Mrs. Eleanor Andrews was wrong by one day. She died the next day at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 16, 2000. When they called me with this news, my heart was filled with a selfish sadness, but there was no sadness for her because the suffering of her worn out body had ended. She knew the Lord personally, and as it is promised in scripture,
“Absent from the body . . . present with the Lord.” II Corinthians 5:8
She was now at home with her God.

There was a “beautiful conspiracy” to take care of her so she could continue independently living at home. All of us who love her always had the fear she would be forced to leave her yard and flowers, to reside in a nursing home.

In the days following her death, I think back to so many special memories of Eleanor Andrews. I smile as I remember how she favored boys in her class over the girls. Because I was a “Dry Creek boy,” she gave me a little extra attention and did what the best teachers always do—made me feel as if I was the most special student in the world.

Then I jump ahead thirty years to her seventy-eighth birthday. We held a party for her at the Old Dry Creek School building where she’d taught for so many years. She fussed at us for planning this event without her permission.

The actual week of the party, she was nervous and agitated. She kept saying, “No one is going to come. There won’t be a hand full of people to see an old woman like me.”
Sunday arrived and she was taken to the schoolhouse where she’d attended school and later taught.

People began coming, and kept coming—a long line of her grandchildren, country men who’d sat in her classroom, ladies who’d first been taught by her in Bible school, and old friends with whom she’d graduated from high school with in this very same building.

What a special day it was for Eleanor Andrews!

When the party was over and the crowd cleared out, she gave me a look that froze me in my tracks. In that gravelly crackled voice I loved so much, she said, “Well, I guess I can forgive you now for planning this without my permission.” Then she broke out into a huge smile and said, “Today, I’ve had one of the finest days of my entire life.”
Nearly two years after that special day, she had another special day.
She went home.

She had a fine funeral and sendoff. She was greatly loved and her memorial service was a fitting mixture of laughter and tears. Sorrow and joy.

We carried her to Dry Creek Cemetery and deposited her beside her husband and two sons.
Driving home that sunny March day, I noticed that the honeysuckle at Mill Bayou has lost its last blossoms of the year.

But deep down in my soul, I believed I could still smell the sweet and wonderful fragrance of honeysuckle. I wondered something: I wonder if there is wild honeysuckle
in Heaven?

I sure hope so.

Honeysuckles are one of my favorite smells. Here are the others that take me back: Cut hay, freshly plowed dirt, DeDe’s hair, steak cooking on a grill, the smell of the ocean. I’d like to hear from you. What are your most memorable smells? Email me with yours and I'll answer back.

Photo below: Ivory faithfully guarding the honeysuckle bouquet