It’s an absolutely beautiful late October morning in Robert Lee, Texas, where I’m sitting in the side yard of my grandparent’s old homestead and attempting to decompress a bit from a terribly hectic fall season. I’m the advance scout for the annual fall convocation of the Robert Lee Texas International Pastors Summit; I’m fortunate enough to be here for at least a day before the rest of the pastoral detritus begin to arrive; it’s quiet, I have the whole retreat center to myself, and I’m trying to remember what it sounds like to be able to actually hear myself thinking. I’ve got my cup of coffee, a comfortable brand-new “larger and more ergonomically advantageous” chair from a bag, and a couple of most excellent peanut butter cookies my lovely wife baked for me the day before I left on this pilgrimage. My cell phone is in the house where I cannot hear it when it rings. It’s all good, and days like this in places like this prove good medicine indeed!
I said it was a nice morning, but that’s really an understatement. It’s one of those rare mornings where you get the best of summer and fall—a cool early breeze, shirt-sleeve temps, and the sounds of birdsong that come wafting toward the house along with the almost sickly-sweet aroma of the honey brush which rims the property on the creek side. One of the birds is a Mockingbird, which either has ADHD or already too much coffee; it’s singing its top-40, in a somewhat maniacal shuffle mode, from atop an old telephone pole at the end of the driveway. I kind of wish it would stick to one song, or at least present a little more of one song before rushing into the rest of its repertoire. On the other hand, the pace and manic nature of his concert is a fairly apt parallel to my life of late–so maybe he’s singing in my honor. He can be the mascot for our convention! There’s also an old black cat stalking about, his arrival timed well for Halloween. He keeps looking at me, as if confused about the presence of a human in his domain that is free of such except for a few days each year. He seems tolerant; I guess I get to stay. Maybe he’ll eat the Mockingbird and we can both have some quiet!
I’m here for the first time since spring, and I was wondering what I’d find after the mother of all droughts has gripped this part of the state with unusual tenacity. The town has about burned down twice, and Robert Lee has had the dubious distinction of being in the national news spotlight as the “poster child” city for towns with a critically diminishing water supply. You can have a town without lots of things, as Robert Lee has proven through the years, tenaciously resisting progress and change. There’s no Wal-Mart here, no Walgreen’s or Weinerschnitzel. They don’t have a Lowe’s or Home Depot. Not even a RedBox outside the one little grocery store. There are indeed a lot of things you can have a town without having–but you can’t have a town without water. Things do look better than I expected; this part of the world was made to do with minimal watering, and it has weathered the drought admirably. Oh, there are signs. Lots of dead trees and shrubs, even the cactus and mesquite trees have suffered. But providential heavy rains, albeit far too infrequent, have made a difference. It’s greener than I expected, a healthy blanket of goat-heads and other weeds trying to get in some late-season propagation before the frost. Why is it that weeds survive when nothing else will? That can be number 4,323 on my list of questions for God….
One of the things I love about Robert Lee is that it possesses a constancy I find lacking back home. In many ways nothing has changed all that much here since I first can remember sitting in this exact place as a child of 5 or 6. Time has, of course, taken its toll. The old homestead sags a bit more each year, and all but a few of the old homesteaders from my youth have long since moved from town out to the cemetery, themselves sagging under the gravity of life, their “old houses” finally breaking into ruin. For the ones I knew, “salt of the earth” types that you seem to find mainly in small rural communities, their “re-location” was a definite trade up in which the earth got poorer and heaven got better. It works that way a lot. Unfortunately, I don’t have to go to the cemetery to mark that kind of progress; I just caught a reflection of myself in the screen of my laptop. Of course, I haven’t changed at all! Yeah, right….
But all of that said and noted, there is a wonderful dependability to this place, and it resonates within me, an anchor to my soul. And if God does indeed in some way allow those in heaven to look down on the earth, I hope it pleases my grandfather Key that I’m sitting in his place, under his old tree, looking out at pastures and a homestead acreage he carved with his own hands from a mesquite wasteland. He never would have imagined that his work as a young man almost a century ago would become a refuge for old, tired pastors. Or maybe he did. He was a shepherd himself, a protector and provider for a hundred sheep who were always wandering off, always getting in trouble, never without need. He might have understood our jobs better than we imagine!
As I go back now and read this post, it strikes me that it is a bit disconnected, a little “stream of consciousness” in its flow. I’m sorry to be jumping around like the Mockingbird in my themes. But that’s where I am today, as I try to slow my mind down and disengage from the frenetic pace of sheep-herding back home. Don’t get me wrong—I love what I do, and consider it a privilege. But I love this, too. And I need this today.
As I try to tie up this meandering epistle, it dawns on me that I have the answer to question number 4,323, concerning the weeds. And the answer may be not-at-all- coincidentally- connected with droughts and funerals, sagging houses and– “earthly tents”– as Paul would put it. It’s all about the fall. And I don’t mean the season. When sin marred Eden, it set the clock ticking. It meant birthdays would culminate in funeral services. It meant thorns and weeds and drought and sweat. It meant sheep would wander willfully, sometimes stupidly, finding trouble, in need of constant attention and rescue. It meant homesteads and homesteaders would sag and crumble. It meant tears and fears and joys and pains and sad good-byes—and lots of questions. But at the same time, against the backdrop of a world ever spinning further and faster back into the chaos from which it was spun, it allows us see the one true constant—God’s faithfulness. As certain as the sun rises and sets, as consistent as the seasons and in spite of the fact that we ourselves are neither certain nor consistent, God’s faithfulness continues. His tender mercies are “new every morning.” I can sense them this morning! What a blessing to be alive, what a blessing to be in His care!