Is Home Where the Heart is?

Recently, I have been thinking on this familiar phrase:


More specifically, I’ve been thinking about from the perspective of those who are homeless. That’s probably because in the last month, I’ve had a renewed focus on those without stable housing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

In her book, Helping America’s Homeless, Martha Burt helps us understand the various interpretations of the term ‘homeless.’ These interpretations focus  on the term as an experience. For example, at times, we refer to the homeless who are transient by choice – those without a defined place. We might refer to those as ‘gypsies,’ or ‘nomads.’  These individuals set up a home for a period of time, only to move on at a later date. Consider circus performers as an example, or those in the construction industry, or in the military, moving from place to place – but not usually without a structured house or apartment.

Likewise, some connect the term ‘home’ with family. When used in this context, ‘homeless’ points to the cultural norm that we are only ‘home’ when we are with our immediate family. The ‘homeless’ in this category likely have resources to put a roof over their heads, but they lack the feel-good nature of ‘home,’ because they live away from their immediate family.

I’m not talking about either of those types of ‘homeless.’ I’m referring to those who experience asset poverty to such a degree that adequate housing is only a dream. What is it to say “Home is where the heart is” to those who struggle on a daily basis for food and safety?

The last week of January is an important date for those who help this population. Each year, municipalities across the United States perform a ‘homeless count’ to estimate the number of homeless persons in an area. Gathered data counts not just the number, but also provides vital information about the population: How long have you been homeless? What services can we provide to you? Are there mental health issues, or were there instances of domestic abuse?

The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, in conjunction with the Collin County Homeless Coalition, sponsored the 2017 Metro Dallas/Collin County Homeless Count. Teams of individuals gathered at City Hall, starting at about 8pm, and were assigned two things: a geographic area, and a police escort. After a short instructional session, teams set out, surveys in hand, to follow their police escort to the most likely areas within the assigned geographic area where the homeless might be found.

This year, the weather was calm – in January, 2016, the temperature dropped to record lows, making it difficult to find and count people. Yet, given those conditions, it was even more important to find them.

My team, from Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, was made up of three persons, plus the police officer. Our first contact was over the phone with a woman who was staying with a friend for an undetermined amount of time. She had lost her job a few months ago, and had lost access to housing as her meager savings ran out.


Our second contact was with a man carrying several plastic bags filled with various staples and clothing; he was walking between a 7-11 and Quick Trip (well lit areas). When the officer asked if he would answer some questions, the man was embarrassed and offended. “Does this look like the jacket of someone who is homeless?” he asked. “I’m just looking for the bus stop.” We respected his position, and we left him a gift bag filled with health related items, food, and a small blanket. Our police escort suspected, as did we, that this man was one who hopped from bus to bus during the night, just to get some rest. So – we counted him, and took our best guess at as many questions that we could answer.

Our final contact was with a man living in his car, who had parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot to sleep. Here, we learned of a smartphone app that helps people who, among others, live in their cars and are looking for big box parking lots that are rarely patrolled by police. Rather than answer our questions, the man asked to be left alone.  And again, we understood that position. Even so, we left another bag for him, in hopes that it provided some nourishment and comfort to him.


On the map which sketched out our geographic area, there was a red dot. These dots indicated areas in which persons had been identified in the past. Beside this dot was written “little wooden structure.” We knew the area – there was a bridge that crossed a small creek, and we suspected that there may be some make-shift shelter there. But when we got to the area, despite our determined focus to find the structure, we were not able to locate one. Given the area, and the amount of rain that fell in the DFW area in 2016, our best guess is that any make-shift shelter would have been swept away in the rains.

We gathered what little information we could, and returned it by the midnight deadline to the City offices. From there, CCHC and MDHA compile the information and submit to national organizations, where grants and other resources are distributed based on community need.

You might ask what I learned as I joined many other teams counting and interviewing those without adequate shelter. The teams found individuals and families on the streets, in hotels, under overpasses, in cars, and huddled in remote corners of industrial complexes. I learned how creative one can be when there isn’t adequate housing for the night. I learned and appreciated the need to affirm that lack of housing does not eliminate a person’s dignity; but often, the homeless are shamed or made to feel like much less than a beautiful child of God.

I have learned that homeless are everywhere in our communities, but that community attempts to ignore or deny those facts don’t help solve the issues.

This is the first of a three part blog on homelessness. The next blog post will share information from a  documentary film focused on the problem of homeless youth in America. And the final post will discuss results of the DFW Homeless count, and what we can do to help with the problem.

In the meantime, I’ll ask you to ponder this question with me:

What does ‘Home is where the heart is’ mean to one who has no home?

The Call

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you probably know that I seek wisdom from a number of sources.  I wrote a blog on that awhile back, titled “What’s Black and White and Red All Over?”  Since I’ve joined the staff at Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, I’ve learned that I had better be aware of recent columns in the New York Times written by David Brooks.  Our senior pastor reads just about everything Brooks writes, including the books, and it’s good to be prepared for the discussion.


We take turns sharing devotionals in our Wednesday morning staff meetings, and I was called on to share in the last month or so.  Coincidentally, Brooks had just published a column the day before, which I read, about distinguishing between vocation and a career.  Brooks wrote in the context of Leadership in America, the current election, and the choices we have when we cast our vote.  You can read the article here;  please stick with me, though, because I’m not talking politics (not today, anyway).

As I read this column, I reflected on how the same concepts apply to each of us, as we strive to find joy in the work that we do.  Let’s break down some of what Brooks shared, in this new context (pushing Brooks’ context of politics to the side for another day):

A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to.

 Maybe this resonated with me because of an interview I had participated in recently.  As you might know, I am seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church, and on that day, I spent one hour answering questions in front of my district’s Board of Ordained Ministry – questions about my theology, doctrine, sacraments, etc.  The first question we are asked is, “Tell us about your call.”  We proceed to share how God called us to ordained ministry, and how we embrace that call.

The same holds true for everyone – because we are all called to a vocation and to ministry, just in different ways.  Some are called to be teachers, or first responders, or a full time parent.   Some are called to build houses, or buildings, or household appliances.  When you find the joy of that call in your life, it is undeniable.  This is what Brooks means – a vocation brings joy to your life; a career brings a job…  And a call is so, so much more than a job.


A vocation involves promises to some ideal, it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur.

You know you have found your calling when you feel joy, even when there are challenges.  Trust me, even in ministry, there are times when I struggle to keep my head above water.  But when I am a part of something – a program, a conversation, a bible study – where someone is so obviously transformed, even for a moment….that’s a sense of overwhelming joy.  Kind of like the scene from “The Incredibles”:


The careerist mentality frequently makes [us] timid, driven more by fear of failure than by any positive ideal.  This timidity results in fear which plays out as self preservation, or the ambition of self over others.

Brooks also quotes the poet David Whyte:  “Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself….losing all sense of our own voice, our own contributions and conversation.”

When we find that vocation or calling, and more importantly, when we respond to it – we find ourselves helping others and striving to lift up (yes, to love) others in need.  Even better – we find when we help others find joy, our own joy is increased.  When we love each other as Christ loves us, our fear and anxiety decrease, and we truly live into our calling – a calling so big, and so vast, that we find ourselves using our imagination – our voices – our hearts – to life others up to a better life.

Here’s the challenge: don’t be afraid to listen for the call, and to respond to it.  As we read in 1 John 4:18:


Don’t stop seeking your true vocation, your call, for it will bring you unlimited joy, and with that, you will bring unlimited joy to others.



Longhorns, Fighting Irish, and an Unexpected Friendship

September 21, 1996.  That’s how far back I have to go to tell this story.  And it seems appropriate that I tell it this week, as the University of Texas Longhorns take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Austin for each team’s opening game of the 2016 season this weekend.  Once again – since Grandma gave me the gift of gab – make yourself comfortable.

Steve and I met in the Longhorn Band at UT.  He says we met in 1985, at the Fiesta Parade in San Antonio (LHB traditionally kicks off the parade as the first band); I know better, and actually have proof.  We met in the fall of 1984 at a meeting of the LHB Decadence newsletter staff.  This was the newsletter that was written by students and distributed to LHB members to read as we traveled to away games.  I still have that particular newsletter; I’m surprised Steve hasn’t burned the evidence by now.

cathy steve LHB

But I digress.

I tell that short version of the story to share why Steve and I, once we graduated, bought season tickets to the Longhorn football games every year for 23 years.  Being in the stadium was just in our blood, and that blood bled a very boiling burnt orange.  Our first seats were well past the end zone, in the sun; eventually, we moved to an area that was under the overhang on the west side, shaded, and filled with characters that we named “Angry Man,” “Headset Man,” and “Hairnet Lady.”  Each game was not complete unless these individuals were in their proper seats; only then did we feel at home.

In 1996, we only had one child (Jack came along in 2000), so we were able to invite friends to the game.  We had four tickets, and they were stacked two and two (rather than four in a row).  This helped us out in that we could easily talk with our guests and explain traditions to them (cue “Angry Man,” “Headset Man,” and “Hairnet Lady”).


At this particular game, we had invited a coworker of mine, Scott Riddles, and his friend John.  Each football season, Scott and John, longtime buddies, had a guy’s weekend, when they selected a high-profile football game to attend.  This year it was #6 UT v #8 ND, in Austin.  The stadium was still known as Texas Memorial Stadium, but had recently undergone improvements, and on this particular day, the seats were filled to capacity.  Who could doubt it?  This was a big game – Texas, coming in with 2 wins on the season, as did Notre Dame.  The two teams met the year before in South Bend, where ND trounced the Longhorns with a score of 55-27. [Quick pause to say that Steve remembers it well, since he was a stones throw from SB at the time, and I made him feel bad about even thinking of attending without me.]  Needless to say, the excitement on this night was in the air – and the expectation of payback? We could almost taste it.

The game was great.  Many of the fans in our area stood, rang their cowbells, chanted “Texas” and “Fight,” when appropriate.  Me?  I joined right in, with one addition.  Scott and John were sitting on the lower two seats, which meant that Steve and I were on the upper two.  This allowed me to stomp my foot loudly on the seat as we cheered and yelled; even better, neither Scott nor John cared that I did.  I’m telling you, it was one of those electric environments that only sports venues can provide, and everyone was on their feet, cheering and yelling.

Well, except this one guy.  And boy, did he let me know it.

At the start of the second half, the game was very close – 14-17, in favor of ND.  (Hey, the internet is good for some stuff like historical box scores).  So, as all good Longhorn fans do, we got back on our feet and started yelling and pounding the seats.  That is until, in one moment of silence after a play, we all heard a voice, coming from a few seats to our right:


Just in case you are wondering, he clearly meant me.

I looked to my right, and saw an older man, maybe in his 70’s, Texas Longhorn cap on his head, glaring at me with what can only be termed a “Get off my lawn!” scowl.  My response was somewhat unexpected:  completely embarrassed, I turned my head toward the field, and sat down on my seat, silent.  (It happens).  His words seemed to hang in the air.  Scott, feeling my shock, tried to lighten the mood.  He turned around from his seat, and casually reminded me, “Well, you could always tell him that technically you are banging on your own seat.  And he should try sitting in front of you!”

But not much helped my mood.  In fact, his outburst made the yelling from others worse.  As you can imagine, the nearby fans more than made up for my missing voice the next two quarters.  But, despite a significantly valiant effort, our Horns lost the game, 27-24, in the last-minute of the game.  We left the stadium – me, significantly humbled and dejected, other fans more boisterous but equally downcast.  And I certainly didn’t make eye contact with the man who yelled at me.

The season continued, and I remained energetic, but quiet.  I just didn’t want to get so worked up that I was scolded again.  So, there I sat, timidly (don’t laugh), through each of the next two home games.

Then came the last game of the season – the big rivalry with Texas A&M.  Nothing compares to a rivalry, and at the time, the Horns had two:  The TX/OU game in October in Dallas, and the home/home series against Texas A&M.  Always – and I mean always – a great game, when anything can happen.  On the field, and off.

As Steve and I made our way to our seats, someone reached out and grabbed my arm.  It was him, and I stared, wide-eyed, wondering what I had done now.  “Little Lady, I want to make sure we talk before the end of the game. I have something for you.”  I looked him in the eye, a little confused, but answered, “OK.”  Then  I made my way to our seats.  He reminded me again at halftime as we passed to go to the concession stand.  Steve and I were both curious by this time.

We cheered the entire game (me, still a bit reserved so as not to offend).  And our cheering paid off – in what can only be described as a solid thumping, the Horns beat the Aggies 51-15, earning the right to meet Nebraska in the first ever Big 12 Championship game the following week.  (The Horns also won that one, something that can never be taken away).

After the game, Steve and I made our way to his seat, and sat down beside him.  What happened next was, at best, unexpected.  He looked at me and said something like this:

“Young lady, a few games ago, I did and said something that was completely out of character for me, and I want to say I am sorry.  It is clear that you are a wonderful fan, and you shouldn’t have to quiet your enthusiasm.”  (or something like that)

Then he reached into his pocket and brought out a card, with his name on it, and handed it to me, with a hug:

L. DeWitt Hale, attorney

(home address)

And such became a wonderful friendship.  I learned that day that DeWitt is a former Representative from the Texas House, serving in various capacities for almost 42 years.  His heart, like mine, led him to fight for better education and equal rights for all.  You can read more about him HERE.  Over the years, we became pen pals; we sometimes traded gifts; he grew to love the kids, and showed it by sharing some of his prized coin collection with them.  When the Longhorns went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in history (2005), we shared pictures with him; and when the Longhorns won the National Championship in 2006, we had something new to celebrate!

Mr. Hale lost his beloved wife, Carol, in 2008, and eventually, it became difficult for DeWitt to attend the games himself.  Our family, too, found that attending all of the games was, at best, difficult, and our time in Austin diminished.  When we did attend, I would make sure to talk with DeWitt’s daughter and grandchildren, who were the light of his eyes.  When Texas was invited to the National Championship again after the 2009 season, we had hopes that all of us could travel to the game together.  However, those dreams became impractical for lots of reasons.  Steve and I dropped our season tickets during the 2015 season, finally admitting giving in to the inevitable….we will likely not be season ticket holders again.

DeWitt is still around; no doubt having in-depth and meaningful discussions with his children and grandchildren.  It’s funny, I haven’t seen him in years, but he remains in my heart every time we sing “The Eyes of Texas.”  I miss that man.  I miss the experience of talking with him.  He is a wealth of knowledge and widsom.  And he made me a better person.


In my last blog post, I wrote about listening to understand, and not to reply (Stephen Covey).  That thought applies here as well.  Both DeWitt and I have had a chance to listen to each other, after what many would call a rocky start.  And by listening, we opened up a whole new route to friendship.  We accomplished this not by yelling, but by listening and loving.

Somewhere in your life, a situation requires listening, rather than yelling.  Find a way to address it.  Apologize.  Forgive each other.  And always, always, let love be your final word.





Ado Annie was Right: “All ‘Er Nuthin'” Doesn’t Work.

Rogers & Hammerstein opened their first collaborative Broadway musical, “Oklahoma!” in March, 1943.  Based on a 1931 play (Green Grow the Lilacs), the show incorporated lively musical numbers, lyrics, and ensemble dances to capture the imaginations of the audience members; the stage version also earned many awards for both the original and revival productions. A movie version was released in 1955, starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.

Oklahoma 12

Set in the early 1900’s in the Oklahoma territory, two love stories unfold among the feuding groups of farmers and cowboys.  Laurie and Curly (Jones and MacRae) are the classic and primary couple.  The other couple – Ado Annie and Will Parker – are the ones I’d like to talk about today.  Will Parker makes himself out to be a new fangled cowboy, set for the bright lights/big Kansas City.  Ado Annie, his ‘gal’ and not one to wait around, stays home, and her flirtatious tendencies drive Will crazy.  Back and forth they go, Will going where he pleases, and Annie never saying no to a visit from a cute beau (that’s one of her famous songs: “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No”).

ado annie

Now, I happen to know a thing or two about this musical.  When I was in the 5th grade, my family moved to Culpeper, Virginia, and the choir, led by Debra Greeley (who later became my church choir director at Culpeper United Methodist Church), performed the musical.  I even remember Lisa Nygaard (Lyons), as Ado Annie, singing the famous lines.  [Lisa has since released three CD’s of original music in the Celtic tradition….take a listen!]

For some reason this week, one of the songs – All Er Nuthin’ – got stuck in my head.  The gist of the song is that Will expects Ado Annie to be and act in a certain way.  “If you can’t give me all, give me nuthin; and nuthin’s what you’ll get from me!”  Ado Annie responds, appropriately, I think, by pointing out that “All Er Nuthin'” doesn’t work well in a relationship.  “With you it’s all er nuthin; all for you and nuthin for me…..”  Annie and Will had to learn to work together to make the relationship work.  And they did.

Maybe the reason the song came to mind is because of the “all er nuthin” approach I hear from many people in disagreements these days.  The late 17th century French moralist Joseph Joubert is credited with this quote: “The aim of a(n argument or) discussion should not be victory, but progress.”  In all of this public discourse taking place on social media and in the news, are we even trying to reach agreement anymore?  I realize the word ‘progress’ brings shivers to the spines of some, but seriously – should we be living in an “all er nuthin” world?  How to we even start to address this?

Here’s how I sort it out:

I try to listen.

 I try to listen not to reply, but to understand. (Covey)

I try to listen as the first duty of love. (Tillich)

I don’t want to be short on ears and long on mouth. (John Wayne)

And I want to listen to the one who is mentioned when God’s voice comes through the cloud, saying,”This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (MT 17:5b)

With Christ, life was not an ‘all er nuthin’ approach to be right, and to advance a cause immediately.   In story after story, we read of how Christ entered situations with a heart toward listening, a servant’s heart that time and again teaches us to listen to the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and the sick.  Christ shows us how to be patient, to listen to understand a need, and to reply with love.

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us this:

27 But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

I say that to do good, we must listen; if we don’t, we might fall prey to the ‘all er nuthin’ mentality.  Yet even when we don’t listen – even when we shoot off our arrogant mouths, assuming that we have all of the facts, assuming we personally know what is best in every situation – even then, God loves us.  Even then, when we realize our mistake, God waits willingly for us to find our way back to him.

That’s how it is with grace – always ‘all’ and never ‘nuthin’.

Now that, my friends, makes for a great story.

In all things, Love.





The Taco Cabana Story

Wanting to start blogging again, I reminded myself of a promise not to do so until I wrote about a particular story.

I’ve been wanting to share this story for some time.  The events of the last few months cause me to believe some might want to hear it now.  Our son, Jack, and I refer to it as “The Taco Cabana Story.”  I’m not sure if that is the best title, but I do know that the story will stay with me a long time.  Why?   After you read this, you might question my judgment.  I ended up questioning something else.  It’s a long one, so get comfortable.


Many of you are aware that Jack played select baseball in DFW for many years.  Three or four times a week, Steve or I would drive him from our home in Richardson to McKinney, Texas, where he would practice with his team.  To be honest, we didn’t really mind – I don’t think any of us would change the alone time we had with him in the car.  At least at the young ages, he was willing to talk and share details about his day, and I viewed that as a blessing.

On this night, I was on car duty.  Jack was 11 or 12, and after practice, he and I agreed to stop at the Taco Cabana on Stacy Road and Highway 75 in Allen, Texas.  I’m really a fan of the EZ-on/EZ-off drive thru places, and Jack had recently become somewhat addicted to Taco Cabana’s brisket tacos.  So, I pulled into the parking lot, prepared to order him his favorite.

As we pulled out of the drive-thru, Jack already chowing on his taco, I saw a man pushing a car in to the parking lot.  Now, remember, it was after sunset, and not many people headed for Taco Cabana on a Tuesday or Thursday night at 9pm in Allen.  I had a feeling this man wouldn’t have many offers for help in the next hour.

broken down car

I stopped the car, told Jack to keep eating, and stepped over to the broken down car, now with the hood popped open.  The man was trying to get the engine to roll over, and he wasn’t having much luck.  Being the properly trained mechanic that I am (my dad made sure I could charge a battery, and I had jumper cables in the trunk), I asked him if I could help jump the battery in his well-used car.

He stopped turning the key, and took a big breath.  This man was probably in his early 20’s.  An African American, he was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes.  Then he turned to me, looking very tired – almost worn out – and said simply, “Yes.  Thank you.”  Then he smiled.

Jack helped us move his car up the incline and into the parking spot next to mine. I got out of my car (still dressed for the day in my business clothes, mind you) and popped the hood to connect the cables.  Thankfully, each of us knew what we were doing, and his car was running again soon.  He thanked me kindly, shook my hand, waved to Jack, and started to back out of the parking spot. I told him I would follow him, at least until we had to get off of the highway in Richardson.  All was going well as he turned the wheel to leave the spot.

Then the car stalled again.

Another man was driving into the parking lot, and I asked him if perhaps he could help.  I had used up all of my mechanical knowledge on the jumper cables.

He just looked at us, didn’t attempt to get out of the car, pointed to his watch, and shook his head, “No.”

The young man lay his head on the steering wheel, and pounded his fist into it.  “Just wanna get to my boy,” he cried.  When I asked him to tell me about that, he said his 3 year old son was with his girlfriend in Dallas and he hadn’t seen them in a few days.

Something nudged me.  I tried to shake it off, but it kept pestering.  So I told him, “Look, we’re headed that direction.  Why don’t you get your things and I’ll drop you off at the DART location in Richardson.  Then you can ride the train to downtown and your girlfriend can pick you up from there.  Will that work?”

He looked at me like I was crazy.  Maybe I was, but as the offer hung in the air, he slowly said, “Sure; thanks.”  He grabbed the few pieces of clothing he had in the back of his car, said “Hey” to Jack as Jack gave up the front seat to him.  I bought him a drink, took off onto Highway 75, and we started a reasonable conversation.  I wish I could recall his name.

I learned he was driving down from Sherman, where he lived with his grandmother.  He had just finished several days of late shifts at a nursing home where he worked.  That’s why he hadn’t seen his family in a few days.  He was trying to save enough money that they could all live together, but for now, they were apart.  And, they were expecting another child in a month.  I suggested he call his girlfriend so she would know what was happening.

I overheard his side of the conversation, and I could hear her mumbled voice on the other side of the phone.  The night was edging on, and it was clear both of them were tired.  Further, being new to the area, I interpreted that she thought I was referring to the Greyhound Bus station and not the DART line near their home.

I quietly asked him, “Where do you need to go to get home?”  With that, he stopped talking, turned his head, and looked at me like I was insane.

“What?” he asked.  “She lives off Knox/Henderson.  Why?”  All I could think of was an 8 month pregnant woman out at night, trying to find the right rail station, and wandering around.

I’m very familiar with that intersection of off 75 in Dallas.  I used to live very close to it.  I lived on the ‘right’ side of the intersection, that is.  The side that had its own patrol of town police; the side that felt safe.  Not the side that intersection other streets filled to the brim with poverty and unemployment.  Not that side.  I knew, if I continued to drive…I knew which way I would turn at that intersection.

“Tell her you’ll be home in about 15 minutes.  Jack, you ok with that?”  I asked as I caught Jack’s eye in the rear view mirror.  Jack nodded, and I said, “Tell her you are on your way.”  He did; he hung up the phone.  I called Steve to let him know we were helping someone with car trouble; why I didn’t elaborate, I don’t know.  In the car, we continued to talk, the three of us, until we reached Knox/Henderson.  “Which way?”  I asked.  “Turn left,” he replied.


After a few more turns, we reached our destination.  He grabbed his clothes, shook my hand and Jack’s, and thanked us over and over.  “Pay it forward someday,” I said.  “God Bless.”  And we drove away.

Silence in the car.  I was thinking about a lot of things, maybe even feeling good that I was able to help someone.  Then Jack asked me, “Mom?  What are you planning on telling Dad?”  I thought about it for a second.  “I don’t know, Jack.  I’m not sure he’d be very happy with me.”  Jack prodded:  “Why not?”  I thought about it again, and I sighed.

“Jack, if I were to share a story with some people that I drove a strange black man from a Taco Cabana in Allen, Texas, to this neighborhood, after dark, with our 11 year old son in the car….well, they might think I was lacking in judgment, to say the least.”

Now it was Jack’s turn to think for a moment.  And after a minute, he responded with words that slapped me in the face, and words that I will never, ever forget.

“Mom?” he asked.

“Yeah?”  I answered.

What’s his being black have to do with it?

For so many reasons, a lump formed in my throat.  I cringed, and with all the humility I could muster, and tearing up with knowledge that even a seminary student who cherishes a God who loves each person as equal can fall prey to ridiculous and hateful stereotypes …..with all of those feelings, I replied to this young, 11 year old boy:

“Not one thing, son.  And thank you.”  And we were quiet for the rest of the drive home.

Having told this story a few times verbally, I have seen the reaction from others.  And yes, some people do think I lacked judgment on that night.

Should I have taken the safe route, and called this stranger a taxi?  Probably.

But not because of the color of his skin.


I’ve silently asked him for forgiveness for my arrogance, and in my head, he has forgiven me.  I know God has.  I never want to forget this story.  And that’s why I’m sharing it with you.  Be mindful, my friends.  Listen to others with intention and love.  We owe it to each other.



The Color Craze

The story begins on a holiday.  I’m fairly certain the holiday was Thanksgiving, and the reason should become clear later in the story.  Get in a good reading position; this is a long one but a great story.

We were together with Steve’s sister and her family for the holiday weekend.  Our daughter, Shannon, was the oldest of the bunch, around 9 at the time; then came Cameron, about 5; and Jack, still a chubby cheeked lad of 2.

As many parents do, we had prepared well to keep the kids occupied for the weekend.  Aside from just general play, and movies, I had found a brand new box of crayons at the discount store.  You know the ones – the 128 jumbo box, sectioned off in smaller cartons of 8, waxy smell drifting upward as we tear off the top, each crayola perfectly crafted, yet to be used.


This particular box that I found was special.  On the outside, the box advertised a ‘NAME THE CRAYON CONTEST.’  Inside the larger box, one sleeve of the crayons was a white box.  The concept was to name the colors in this sleeve, send in your innovative creations, and receive the honor of having ‘named’ one or more crayola crayons.  Brilliant move.

Now, I know that recently the coloring craze has been touted as a stress reliever for adults as well as educational and creative play for children (a discovery that I am completely in favor of, by the way).  But that research hadn’t been completed at the time of this story.  Which is why it was a bit curious that the person most excited about the contest was not our daughter, Shannon (who probably kept crayola in business), but her Uncle Tim.

Since the time our nephew, Cameron, could draw, Tim had been fascinated with coloring, and joined him at every opportunity.  We weren’t too surprised that Tim jumped down on the floor with the kids, eager to name the crayons.  Pulling out the first one – green – he turned the crayon on its edge, scribbling the color with flair onto a white piece of paper, Tim declared with confidence:  “Bent Grass Green.”  We were hooked.

He selected the orange one next.  Tim, along with Steve and I, were graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and we were certain he’d have the perfect name for the orange hue.  Again, a scribble on the page, and another confident declaration:  “Sunset Orange.”  Amazing.

Finally, Tim pulled out the next crayon, which was a darker shade of purple.  We all stared at it, with serious trepidation.  Here’s why I’m sure the holiday was Thanksgiving:  because Texas and Texas A&M had just played a sports game (I’m assuming football), and A&M had won, with more than a few questionable calls during the game going against our beloved Longhorns.  Tim stared at the tip of the crayon; he drew a straight line – no flourishes for this one – and declared, with all the passion he could muster:  “Cheaters Maroon.”

Our family loves that story, and we reference it often.  It’s one of those inside, legacy stories that will live on in the Sweeney and Host households.  Our family passion for coloring hasn’t waned one bit since that time; I can’t seem to part with any of the bits and pieces in our crafts closet.

Earlier this month, I read something new, by author and artist Ingrid Sundberg (


She’s created a Color Thesaurus so that she can name every shade of every color.  How brilliant is that?  Having reviewed the chart, I’d say she has hit the mark with almost each one (although she could use some of Tim’s creative adjectives for emphasis).  I’m amazed at how she’s able to see a distinct difference between, say – ‘ballet slipper’ and ‘lemonade.’  Some people just have a great eye for details like that.

Here’s something I know:  God knows those kind of details.  God, the creator, who made each of us distinct, and who knows each of us by name.  We read from the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 40:26

Lift your eyes and look to the heavens;
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

The same God who created the starry host, created us….with great detail.  As we continue in the Lenten season, I urge you to stop and contemplate what God created in you….what is the Holy Spirit calling you to become?  More importantly, how will you act upon it?

See, unlike the crayon naming, this isn’t a contest.  This is, first and foremost, between you and God.  God already knows who you are, what you’ve done, and what you can become.  And God is waiting, more than patiently, for you to accept him.  What’s stopping you?


Note to the keenly observant:  Tim didn’t win the contest, although we believe he could have.  Turns out the package that I purchased from the discount store were ‘out of date.’  The contest had wrapped up about three years prior.  But someday…….

Lighten the Load

For Christmas a few years ago, I received a wonderful hobo purse as a gift.  You may be familiar with them – large bags, flung over shoulders, expansive enough to hold wallet, electronics, makeup, and more.

hobo purse

Now, I really like this purse.  I organized the inside with one of those purse organizers….I was really flying high.  Never was without something.  Always had everything with me.

One day last week, I reached up and grabbed my neck, by the shoulder.  It was hurting, and I couldn’t figure out why.  Eventually, I tracked the problem: my purse was weighing me down.  The “everything purse” was carrying a load, and it was having a negative effect on my neck, shoulders and back.

What could I do but open up the purse and start to purge?  Ever had to do that?  I started with the obvious – the coins – and pulled them out, placing them in the coin holding pot in our kitchen.  (We use those Coinstar coin counters at the grocery store – love them!)  Then I worked on the rest of my wallet, making sure I wasn’t holding on to unnecessary receipts, business cards, etc.

Then it got a little more difficult.  I quietly reached for my key chain, and knew I had some work to do.  This particular key chain was a gift from my daughter, many years ago.  At one time, it held two drop charms – one of a girl, one of a boy, each named after our daughter and son.  And the drop charms were connected to a big round key ring.

It’s not just that the key ring itself held meaning.  What was on the chain was equally revealing.  For example, I was still carrying around a key or two from an old office where I worked, on a difficult project.  Why would I want to look at that every day, to remember a difficult time?  Another example:  I still carried around the key to a file cabinet from a location where I worked over 10 years ago; I don’t even know where that file cabinet is now.  But I can tell you what was in that file cabinet – legal papers.  As in litigation (which is sometimes necessary in business).  Why would I choose to look at a key that reminded me of litigation and fighting and bickering?

So I did what I should have done a long time ago.  I tossed the stuff I didn’t need to hold onto anymore.  I lightened my load.  And within a day or two, my neck did feel better.

Matthew 11:28 shares with us the words of Jesus, who asks us to “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  As we begin a season of Lent, and as many of us attend Ash Wednesday services today, I pray that you are able to lay your burdens down at the feet of Christ, who provides the forgiveness and the peace we crave.

Consider attending some Lenten services in your neighborhood.  At our church (Christ UMC in Plano, Texas), you will find us in the sanctuary every Wednesday night at 7, and in the chapel at 730, as we share in spiritual formation activities that will help us lighten our load and give all to God.

If you visit, come find me.  I’ll be the one with the hobo bag that’s not sagging.

How do the Faithful Pack a Lunch?

For many years, I made lunches for our daughter, Shannon, to take to school.  As a vegetarian, she sometimes had few options provided in the school cafeteria, and packing her lunches was a good way to make sure she had something she would eat.

Shannon graduated from high school in 2012, and by that time, I had added lunches for Jack to my daily routine.  For each, I made sure that the lunch contained a healthy balance of items:  one main item (like a sandwich or wrap), a veggie, a piece of fruit, chips and a treat.


Some might question if that is, in fact, a healthy balance; I say yes, given some of the alternative choices we face.  As a junk food junkie myself, I know the temptation to select the quick and the easy.  I don’t want that for my kids (we’ll talk about me another time), so I’m happy to pack the lunch each morning.

For whatever reason, this morning got me thinking about each of the items in the lunch, and how living a faithful life also requires us to select from certain ‘food groups’ every day (or at least every week).  Let’s take a look at the lunch items and see if we can determine an equivalent for leading a faithful life:

  1. The Sandwich:  being the main portion of the lunch, this item keeps us filled and fueled until the next meal.  What’s a sandwich in our spiritual lives?  I’d suggest that worship fills this role.  Once a week, we come together with others to hear a message, learn more about God and our relationship with God – to praise and to proclaim that which we know is good.  With lunch, some choose turkey over pastrami; some choose a veggie wrap over chicken tortilla wraps.  With worship, some people choose traditional, some like modern or contemporary.  Some prefer live streaming, some come in person.  Whatever the choice, the meaningful service hold us over until the next week; but alone, it’s not enough.  What else do we need?
  2. The Vegetable.  Yes, I know.  Many of us would not choose to include a vegetable for our lunch.  Yet, each day, I make sure I put carrots, or green peppers or cucumbers in Jack’s lunch sack.  Vegetables are those lunch items that need a little more chewing; they are often crunchy, needing more time to digest than some food items.  The equivalent in our spiritual lives, I think, is bible study.  No, not because the Words is hard to digest;  when we read and strive to understand the Word, we are pondering and listening, and learning.  Reading the Word, and understanding it, takes time – just like eating the crunchy vegetables sometimes takes time.
  3. The Fruit.   You’re waiting for me to make some kind of lame connection to the apple, aren’t you?  Instead, I’m going to point you to Galatians 5:22-23:  “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Packing a piece of fruit in our lunch reminds us that there are ‘fruits’ we gain from living a faithful life.
  4. The Chips.  Let me be the first to say, this is a hard one for me.  I often go overboard on chips.  But adding chips to the meal brings a variety, and adds a bit of tasty salt to the mix.  Wait – you ask – isn’t salt bad for you?   Yes, it can be, but not the way Matthew uses it in The Message, MT 5:13.  In that verse, Jesus says, “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?”  Using salt – and chips – sparingly when we pack our lunch, that’s the key.  We add chips and salt to flavor the rest of the meal – the worship, the bible study, the fruits of the Spirit.
  5. And finally, the Treat.  This morning, I packed the Boy Scout Trail’s End brand of chocolate covered popcorn.  Soon, I’ll switch to Girl Scout cookies.  Often, I pack graham crackers and nutella spread.  The lunch just isn’t complete without that last item.  In comparison, I don’t think a life of faith is complete without relationships with other people.  We read in Genesis 1:18 “It is not good that the man shall be alone.”  And so God created humanity, and gave Adam a partner to share life, and it was only after God created humanity that it is written “and it was very good.”

That treat in the lunch is not meant to be eaten alone; when we live a life of faith, we want to share the joys of that life with others.  We share by faith and by actions – loving others, serving others, loving God, serving God.

That’s what I call balancing a faithful life.  And I think about it every morning, when I pack Jack’s lunch.

From the Scoring Table

This may not come as a surprise, from someone who graduated UT with an accounting degree:  When given the opportunity, I keep score at Jack’s basketball games.  Most of the parents from Jack’s teams (basketball or baseball) know why:  Keeping the book keeps me from yelling from the seats too often and too loudly.  Keeping the book helps keep me calm, and rational, and really makes me focus on all aspects of the game.

OSU Basketball Scorer

I enjoy keeping score, which I only do in the rec league.  From the scorer’s table, I get a unique view of travels, and steals, and the often missed/improperly called foul.  From the scorer’s table, I can hear coaches and assistants planning strategies before the game, and during time outs.  At the scorer’s table, you’ll often see me smile when I overhear the boys ‘encouraging’ each other with heated commentary.

At the scorer’s table, I meet people.  There are always two of us – one keeping the book, and one working the clock.  Many of the league refs know by now that I do not like to keep the clock.  The pressure is just too much on the clock, and the action is so visible- turn it on, turn it off, make sure you turn the arrow, and my favorite – was that a 2 or a 3?  Sure, the more you keep the clock, the easier it is; I’d just as well keep the book.

 Keeping the book relaxes me.  I have a system for Coach Nick – written numbers in the quarter, and beside the player’s name means a shot was taken and made; zeros mean a 2 pointer was taken and missed; triangles mean a 3 pointer was missed; circle with a line through means foul shot made for 1 point; circle underlined means missed foul shot.  Throughout the columns, you’ll find my R’s, T’s, S’s and A’s:  Rebounds, Turnovers, and Steals…..and the ever illusory Assist.

Let me tell you, if this Sweeney gives credit for an assist, that player rocks.

See, an ‘assist’ in basketball is one of the most subjective statistics in basketball.  Assists are granted completely at the judgment of the scorekeeper (that would be me).  There is no formal definition of the ‘assist.’  The NBA Statistician’s Handbook states that ‘A player is credited with an assist when the player makes, in the judgment of the statistician, the principal pass contributing directly to a field goal (or an awarded score of two or three points)‘.   That is, two things need to happen:  first a pass is made from one player to another; and then, the second player makes a shot that goes in.

burke assist

I’m very stingy on handing out assists, and I feel so judgmental about it.  I guess that’s the one thing I don’t like about the scoring table – there is a point where I watch refs and coaches and players act as ‘judge’ for others, by applying the rules of basketball as they see from their position on the court.  And I really don’t like to judge.

I know of another table where there is no judgment, only forgiveness.  How I wish every table could be like the welcoming communion table, the open table to which Christ invites each and every one of us.  At this table, we recognize that God gave us the ultimate assist by giving us God’s son, Jesus Christ. God passed Christ to us, and it’s up to us to carry the ball to the basket by sharing Christ with others.

And this month, we all get to add a beautiful scoring to our book of life:

 Let’s make it a star, for the ultimate assist God has given to us in the form of a baby, come to save the world.  (MT 2:9b-10; LK 2:10-14)

Merry Christmas, everyone.

God Blesses and Prayers

When our kids were younger, we had a nighttime routine for bedtime.  After baths, after brushing teeth, after the bedtime story and that last drink of water, we prayed.  We prayed the same basic prayer every night, and we called it “God Blesses and Prayers:”

children praying

“God, thank you for a beautiful day.  Thank you for [insert good things that happened today.]  God Bless Mommy and Daddy, Shannon and Jack and Ash-a-lee, Grandmas and Grandpas, Aunt and Uncles and Cousins, all our friends, people who are happy, and those who need help.  We love you, God.  Amen.”

Such a simple prayer that reminded all of us, each day, to thank God, remember those who are close to us, and to help others in whatever way we could, and especially through prayer.  But is prayer enough?  Some say yes, some say no.  And, to be inclusive, some say prayer just doesn’t make a difference.  I’m one that says yes, prayer helps.

Recently, some in the national spotlight have taken heat for offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ for the families and victims of the San Bernardino shootings.  Perhaps we’ve all just had enough – too much violence, too much fear, too much inaction to help those who need it most.   Some seem to be saying that prayer is not enough – they want action; they want progress; they want an end to this insane run of violence.

I, too, want change, and action, and an end to violence.

But I also don’t think I’m going to get that without prayer.  Why?  Because when I pray, I listen; and when I pray, I wait for God to respond.  And when God responds, we are called to act, sometimes courageously, to make a change where change is needed.

Mother Teresa understood the power of prayer.  She helped us understand the purpose of prayer when she told us:

prayer changes us

And so, we pray.  We pray thanks for all that is right in our lives.  We pray for the right words to comfort a friend who is grieving the loss of a family member during this holiday season.  We pray for the soldiers, and the first responders, who put their lives in danger every day and night, so that we are safe.  We pray for our fears, and for others’ fears as they face difficult medical problems.  We pray for wisdom to enter into discussions to help solve problems that seem to grow larger every day.

And we pray that each of us listens closely for God’s call, and that each of us has the courage to act on that call, wherever it might lead.

When we do, we’re doing a lot more than ‘offering thoughts and prayers.’   We are changing things for the better.  And in doing so, we make “God Blesses and Prayers” an action, not just a phrase.