My Newest Venture

The newest member of my income-making family.
The newest member of my income-making family.

By all accounts, I am an entrepreneur.  With a little creativity and a lot of hard work, I’ve been able to earn funds from funerals and gather wealth from weddings.  I’ve written blog posts for profit and gardened for a little green.  I was lucrative at landscaping and remunerated for my readings.  In short, I am always looking for a way to make some money.

And so, when I bought my new-to-me John Deere L130 garden tractor last fall, I knew there had to be a way to cash in:  Enter my neighbor.

Having hired my kids to mow his yard each summer for the past decade, I knew he would be looking for a replacement mower after the boys moved out last autumn.  As the grass turned green this spring, I subtly dropped the hint that I would be happy to mow his yard, but only if he wanted me to.  I knew I could knock his yard out in record time with my new 48-inch cutting deck and teeth-rattling 23-horsepower under the green hood.  Reluctant at first, he was quick to sign on after mowing his yard himself for the first time this year.

I was thrilled!  A yard that took my boys 45-minutes to push mow would take me a mere 20-minutes of comfortable riding.  For very little effort, I would make quite a bit of dough.

For many years my neighbor paid my boys up to $25 per mowing job.  However, because we are friends, I’m only charging $20.  But problems started early on when my “friend” texted me one evening as the thunderclouds began to form on the horizon.  He wanted me to mow before the rain hit; a difficult task as I was just finishing my own perfectly manicured lawn.  The tension began to rise when I explained how his last minute request fit into my pricing schedule:

  1. The Friend and Family Rate ($20) = This is subject to change by how snotty you are if I don’t respond to your beck and call (See #4)
  2. The Convenience Rate ($35) = I mow at my own convenience
  3. The Use-To-Be Friends & Family Rate ($50 + the cost of gas) = (See #1)
  4. The Emergency Rate ($75) = My car payment is due so I’m mowing your yard whether you need me to or not.
  5. The It’s About To Rain Rate ($85) = You didn’t look at the weather and now you need your yard mowed right away.

This text request clearly fell into price #5.  However, the argument was entirely my fault.  I failed to provide my pricing schedule up front.  My neighbor was under the impression that every yard mowing came in at the Friends & Family Rate.

To alleviate any future confusion…or fist fights…I’ve decided that I should print business cards with my services outlined (weddings, funerals, lawn mowing) and the pricing schedule above.  I expect that I should soon be able to retire from my day job and simply drive around the neighborhood on my mower, cutting grass, performing weddings and the occasional funeral, raking in the cash as I roll!

It’s Not Really Saying Goodbye…

20131227_124950 If you’ve ever met them, you know that John and Pam are two people who exude talent and live gentle lives of passion and grace.  They are creative people who are fully committed to one another, God and their cats (but not in that order).

John and Pam have a calling to make movies that change lives.  They’ve worked hard to accomplish this monumental vision in Indiana and in the process, they’ve proven their skill and have been most successful in their en devour.

20131227_124935However, after 17 years in Indiana, they’ve decided to pull up stakes and take their talent on the road.  By next month they will begin a new adventure in their lives.  Before they could begin, they had to accomplish an even harder task of packing and moving.  They are special people and I was happy to help them but sad to say goodbye.

20131227_105218And so, the packing started early this morning, and in the span of three short hours a team of dedicated friends packed every one of their worldly belongings into a very large trailer.  It wasn’t an easy task: It required a little pushing, a little prodding and a little gymnastics.  However, shortly after noon we closed the door on the trailer and started saying our goodbyes.

As I drove away from their former home, it occurred to me that saying goodbye didn’t feel quite right.  It really isn’t saying goodbye; it’s more like see you later.  This realization gave me comfort.  After all, they are leaving Indiana but not my life.  They are not out of my life, only relocated.  They are not out of touch, only out of state.

And so, I drove home with a lightened heart, knowing my friends are pursuing their calling and it will only be a matter of days before they are settled into their new home and changing the world, one movie at a time.  We’ll talk again, I have no doubt;  and when we do, I can’t wait to hear how they got that couch out of the truck without a group of circus acrobats and an industrial crowbar.

Life Together

Everyone needs a place to call their own.  Everyone needs a group of people who know them, support them and love them.  To quote the theme song from Cheers, “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”

For my family, our church’s small group has been that place for the past decade.  We’ve fallen in love with these people over the years.  Through good and bad, thick and thin, we’ve shared life.  Together.  It hasn’t always been easy.  But it has always been good.

Last night was another opportunity to gather, laugh, study and pray.  It was another reminder of the privilege we have to share this time in our lives.  These are special people and I can’t imagine my life without them.

From Boys to Men

Boys to MenThere is a beautify that comes from living with good friends over many years.  A rhythm develops and a give-and-take grows from weekly interactions, soulful conversations and an ongoing, loving dialogue.  You get to know each member very well and they, in turn, get to know you.  They can see when you are struggling.  They can help you prepare when the dark clouds form on the horizon. They stand beside you when parenting is hard.  They are present during surgeries, illness and family funerals.  They love you through the painful days in ways no one else can.

And they can share in your hopes, dreams, joys and celebrations.  They relish in your successes.  They are present when babies are born.  They cheer when graduations occur.  They sing at the tops of their lungs during birthday parties.

They are good friends walking with you along this path of life.

I’m am so happy that I am able to reap the benefits of this relational treasure.  But with the benefit comes a responsibility that to the members of your group and the generations that will follow.

The picture on the left is from May 2006. It reveals the men of our group and young Elliott, then 10 years old, as we volunteered at a local women’s shelter.  That day we moved wood, cleaned trash piles and gave sweat and blood to the project.  In short, we all spent a fun morning doing hard work that made a difference.  Elliott is now 18 years old.  He donates his time to the church.  He travels on missions trips.  He engages the community.  He is a productive member of society.  And we were a small part of that journey to adulthood.

The picture on the right was taken last night (July 5, 2013).  Javier is eight.  He is funny, energetic, and creative.  The men in our group engage him in conversation, ask him questions about his life and love him like a son.  There is no way for us to know what he will be ten years from now.  But we do know that it is our responsibility to stand with him, to love him, to guide him along that path and into adulthood.

Over our many years together, our group has helped raise Eli, Abby, Jonathan and Emily.  Most recently, we’ve loved Benjamin and Elliott to adulthood.  But we aren’t done.  We still need to hug on and pray for Claire, Hannah, Javi and Mia.  The youngest members of our troupe, Audry and Wesley are just learning what it means to be a part of this odd mix of extended family: Aunts and Uncles that are not in their blood line but love them as if they were.  And with each passing year we will find new ways to engage, love and care for these blessed charges as we continue to engage, love and care for each and every member of our group.

May God continue to give us wisdom, patience and love as we live out this incredible responsibility, this amazing challenge, and this awesome opportunity.

A Blessing for All

Last night we celebrated Ben’s graduation with a wonderful party.  There was amazing food, good friends, and lots of fun.  Most of all, there was laughter and joy.

It was an honor to Ben that so many people came to celebrate with him.  It was a blessing to us that we were able to enjoy the day with so many loving friends who have helped us raise Ben over the years, guide him in the way he should go, and love him into who he is.

Thank you.  To each and every one of you who took time out of your busy lives to come to eat cake.  It means more to us than you will ever know.

Rebecca’s Party

We love our friends, the Mullens Family.  We’ve stood beside one another for many, many years.  It was such a joy to celebrate with Rebecca and her family in recognition of her graduation from high school.  It doesn’t seem possible that 18 years have gone by so fast!

My Man Diary

IMAG2443
My wife playing with one of our God-Daughter’s in 2005.

My God-Daughter is mischievous.  From the time she was a little squirt, she’s liked to talk, dance, squirm and giggle non-stop.  She is a precious treasure to her entire family, but she’s also as ornery as they come.

Last night we found the now-nine-year-old and her family at church between services and we took a few minutes to talk.  We caught up on the activities of the past week or two as hundreds of attenders filed past in the busy hallways.

Out of the blue my dear God-Daughter reported loudly, “You probably have a Man Diary.”

This statement was so out of context and unexpected, I had to ask her to repeat herself.  She leaned forward so this old guy could hear her better.  She looked right into my eyes and repeated the phrase, louder and with too much emphasis on the word “Diary“.

I thought for a moment about her accusation.  And then, like a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat, I pulled out my black writer’s notebook from under my arm and held it up for her to see.

“You DO have a Man-Diary!” she yelled.

“I like to call it a notebook.” was my weak reply.

She giggled, knowing that she’d caught me in some shameful act.  I explained that this book, this notebook, was used to document my observations and my thoughts for the blogs I write.

“Ya,” she said, nodding her head triumphantly and folding her arms.  “It’s a Man-Diary.”  And she giggled even more.

As we parted, I hugged her tight and kissed her forehead.  Although, I’m not sure she deserved any of it!

As soon as I found my seat in church, I opened the black notebook to the front page and in big, bold letters I wrote, “This is my Man-Diary.”  Now there will never be a question about it again.

 

 

The Gift of a Friend

Ben and Elliott have been friends for more than 9 years.  During that time they have played games, designed shirts, created music, and much more.  They’ve changed from little boys to young men.  Their friendship endures because of their many similarities but it thrives because of their many differences.

This past week we spent nine days together flying from Indianapolis to Houston and back.  Along the way, the boys/men met mutual friends, played more games, explored and discovered new places, walked the streets of Houston, ate amazing meals and learned even more about one another.

I believe it will be a trip they will never forget.  It was our goal to enjoy ourselves, experience new and exciting things, and connect with old friends.  I think we accomplished our mission.  In the words of Gary Sinise, playing Ken Mattingly in the Houston-based movie, Apollo 13, “It (was a) hell of a mission.  One for the books.

Up Close and Personal

Museums, aquariums, and arboretums allow us the wonderful opportunity to get closer to things we usually view from a distance.  But we enjoy the experience only if we will open our eyes to what surrounds us.

Rare BirdWhen you pay attention to the detail, you see things differently.  Typically, we view a sky full of black dots and see nothing more than a few black birds flying high overhead.  But when one lands next to you, perches on the branch close to your bench, you are suddenly face-to-face with one, lone bird and it changes your perspective for ever.  Bird SongIf you look closely, you will witness the gloss and shine of individual feathers.  When you lean closer, you make eye contact.  The eyes watch you warily.  The head cocks, the beak opens and a song erupts, bright and loud.  You are privileged to hear the amazing sound of of an individual song, sung at a pitch and volume that awakens the soul and enlivens the heart.

Yellow TangWhen you are intentional in your viewing, you no longer see a pond as just another body of water.  Instead, it is teaming with life that longs to be examined.  If you pay attention, you see new colors and fantastic brilliance.  You witness life interacting with life.  clown fishYou celebrate the vibrancy of the patterns and the magical movement that is as fluid as the medium containing this fantastic show.

I so enjoy the close-up view.  The experience is a gentle reminder of the need to take this same approach with the people in our lives.  We would benefit from looking at our brothers and sisters in the same way we examine a magpie or a clown fish.  Those co-workers who share our 40-hour work week rarely receive a closer look.  We’re continent to see them from the 10,000 foot level, keeping their unique lives as distant from our own as possible.

102_3782We rarely listen to the songs they sing, view the colors of their lives that make them unique, or understand the stories that make them one-of-a-kind.

It’s an unfortunate reality of our life together.  There are so many wonders in this world and some of them, our neighbors, our coworkers and friends, are closer than we can imagine.  We would see them all in a whole new way…if only we would open our eyes.

26 years and counting…

Moving to Wilmore, Kentucky in 1987 brought about some change for the new Austin Family.  Anita was a Registered Nurse for the first time, I started Seminary and we met Lynn and Wendy Lewis.  This was in the days before children and we were younger and life was more simple.

26 years have passed since that first meeting.  Over that time we have enjoyed seeing one another during an occasional summer vacation or family trip.  Facebook has offered a renewed connection, but it’s been more than thirteen years since we’ve been face-to-face and enjoyed one another and comfort that comes from like-minded friends.

The Lewis Family are wonderful people and I’m happy to call them friends.  Lynn is a brilliant man who dreams big dreams and trusts that God will make them reality in their perfect time.  Wendy is a passionate defender of the downhearted and her beautiful children.

Imagine my joy when I learned that they live less than 20 minutes from our hotel room here in Houston.  The opportunity to spend time with the dear ones was too much to pass up.  Saturday supper, Easter morning church and a wonderful Sunday Lunch were welcome opportunities to celebrate our nearly three-decades of friendship, catch up on life’s journey and reminisce about old times.

Despite the fact that they are from the deep south and we are cold northerners, we still love deeply.  Although Wendy is a died-in-the-wool conservative and I’m a Obama-lovin’ Democrat, we can tolerate time together at the same table.  When we are together, these things no longer matter.  All that matters is our love for one another.

Our long-standing friendship has stood against the test of time and when we see one another we exchange tight hugs, laugh easily and often, and occasionally shed tears of sorrow or joy.

The trip to Houston has been worth every mile traveled, if for no other reason than the opportunity to share moments with friends like these.

Bestest of Friends

DSCF4161Who is your best friend?

Who laughs with you during the good times?  Who cries with you during the bad?  Who understands you, appreciates you…Who “gets” you?

We all need a best friend.  Who is yours?

Who stands next to you and walks beside you?

Who shares your passions and appreciates your idiosyncrasies?

Who tells you the truth?  Who holds you accountable?  Who calls it like it is?

Who is your best friend?

The White House Buzz

Perhaps the only bees on the plant to have Secret Service Protection.
Perhaps the only bees on the planet to have Secret Service Protection.

My friend, Mac loves bees.  He worries about them in extreme cold.  He frets about them in extreme heat.  He puts out pans of water for them to drink in the summer.  He is frequently called upon to gather wild swarms and is happy to give them a good home whenever possible.  Mac has many, many hives and ensures that each one is located is a place that will provide optimum pollen and plenty of resources to keep them happy all season long.

Because of Mac’s attention to detail, he produces some of the finest honey I’ve ever tasted.  Actually, the bees produce it, not my friend…he just puts it in jars.

The White House Bee Hive
Positioned just alongside the White House Garden, these bees are in the perfect location to hear the latest buzz on happenings in and around the capital.

Mac has opened my eyes to the wide world of bee keeping.  That is probably why I was so excited when I found a bee hive in a most unusual place this past week.

We all know about Mrs. Obama’s garden and while visiting the White House, I saw many people stand at the fence and pose for pictures with the garden in the background.  What they may have missed was the Bee Hive that is positioned in the shade of several trees just a few yards away.  I had no idea that the Obama administration supported bees and was fascinated by the numerous articles and videos that explain this new addition to the White House property.

It seems that this past year, while providing pollination to Mrs. Obama’s garden and the many flowers surrounding the area, the bees were also able to provide over 175 lbs of honey to the White House Kitchen.  That is a lot of honey!

And while I am no apiculturist or even an economist, I’m thinking that the White House may have found a way to reduce the deficit.  At nearly $10 a jar and a few more hives, we could lick (pun intended) this budget problem that is all the buzz (yes, pun intended again) around our nation’s capital.

Put that bee in your bonnet!

 

A Short Walk Down Memory Lane

Having the opportunity to work with youth has always been a highlight of my professional career and my personal journey.  There is just something special about getting to know a 12-year-old and watching them grow through the awkward stages of youth into a young adult.  And to make it better, every once in a while these former kids enter my life again as grown men and women with spouses, children, jobs and active, productive lives that are fully formed and fairly functional.  I like to think I had a small part in that.

I started working with junior highers when I was a sophomore in high school.  I retired my sleeping bag and guitar when I was 34-years-old.  In the nearly 20 years that I worked with kids, I did it all.  I organized summer camps, keynoted Sr. High Institute, took kids on retreats, outings and overnights.  With the faithful adult volunteers, we completed Confirmation classes, sang camp songs and studied the Bible.  We went bowling, white-water rafting, skiing and sledding.  We climbed mountains and crawled in caves.  We played cards, tag and Frisbee.   We rode roller coasters, horses and go-carts.  We drove from Colorado to Florida.  We served the homeless, fed the hungry and ministered to the marginalized.  In short, it was life changing ministry for all involved.

The kids we served over those years are too numerous to mention by name.  Some were brilliant and bright and they changed my heart in ways they will never know.  Some were chippy and challenging and pushed me to be a better person.  A few were troubled and trouble and I never did find a way to help them.  But most were just kids trying to figure out life and all it had to throw at them.

But as great as it was, I wouldn’t go back into youth ministry for any amount of money. Many years have passed and I’m no longer capable of keeping up with the kids.  The good youth workers have energy and patience.  I’m just tired and intolerant.

The best youth leaders are fully committed and completely competent. I’m neither.

The effective youth ministers are passionate and full of pizazz and I’m just pooped.   In fact, I feel the need to take a nap even after this short walk down memory lane!

 

The Dog Days

From our first days in Wilmore, Kentucky, we’ve enjoyed a four-legged family member in our home.  Dogs are our favorite animal and we’ve grown to love quite a few over the years.

Our first, and arguably the family favorite, Isha was a pound dog.  She was our child before we had children.  There were many walks around the town of Wilmore, the neighborhoods of Muncie and Avilla with Isha on the leash.  When she died in 1999, we tearfully drove back to Kentucky to scatter her ashes on the hills of the little town where we played so freely together.   She was loyal, sweet and very smart.

Other than the time he ate our daughter’s Guinea Pig, Chip was my favorite of the family pets.  A good friend who saw me through some tough times, he never questioned me but knew that a ride in the car would make everything better.  We spent many hours together walking the woods and lake shores of Indiana.  I still get misty-eyed when I think of him.

Kula…well, let’s just say that Kula was a mistake that we couldn’t have predicted.  A pound rescue at 12 weeks old, she turned into a holy terror.  She attacked friends.  She attacked family.  She attacked me.  Needless to say, she wasn’t with us very long.

Jack is affectionately called “Our Little Space Monkey”.  He is stubborn and lovable and we wouldn’t trade him for anything.  Well, we would trade him for something nice, like a TV or a blender.  No.  I take that back.  He stays because he’s family…unless you really are offering that TV.

We were lucky enough to have Sidney join our family shortly after Chip died.  I say lucky.  My wife might use another word.  Actually, she has used lots of words but this is a family-friendly blog and I can’t post them here.  Any faithful reader of Austin’s Acre knows that Sid has posed some challenges.  She has special needs, and we freely acknowledge this.  But she’s getting better.  Sometimes.  But not today.   Just don’t look at her, call her name, get up quickly from a chair or think kind dog-thoughts and you’ll be fine.  Otherwise, it’s your own fault when the tongue-wagging, Labrador lapdog joins you.

Dogs add depth to a family.  They add character.  The house might be quiet and then a subtle yacking from the front room reminds you that you are not alone.  The house might be clean and then you let them in through the back door on a rainy day and you spend the next two hours mopping.  You might spend an extra $20 bucks at the grocery store just to feed your dogs for the week.  But every minute is worth it.  They are tried and true and they love you through thick and thin.

And I didn’t even mention Ralph, Noami, Stupeedo, Red, Stud, Bandit, Velvet, Bones, or Dale.  They were all great dogs.  Each and every one.  Well, all of them but Kula.  She would eat your arm for breakfast.  But the rest were great.

Our Northern Cousin

Anita pus up with us both.
Anita puts up with us both.

Grant Shenker and I attended Asbury Theological Seminary together.  We worked in the Multi-Media Department and once I got over his severe Canadian accent, we became good friends.

Grant never said it, but I could always tell that he was frustrated by my lack of understanding about his native country and its strange ways.  I tried to learn their customs, like Thanksgiving at the wrong time of the year and the need to say “Eh” after every sentence and making everything a question.  After all, I think I’m a pretty tolerant person.  But these are big barriers to overcome for even the best of friends.

Why can't our countries just get along?
Why can’t our countries just get along?

After graduation, Grant returned to his native homeland to pursue a life of ministry.  As far as I know, he still lives in Canada.  But I haven’t spoken to Grant in many years and suspect he’s been eaten by the wolves in the Northern Country.

It is possible that he is making a life for himself and surviving on moose jerky and tree lichen.  I check the news media frequently and look for his face when they show the Iditarod in an effort to catch a glimpse of him.  It is also possible that he is running dog sleds to deliver the mail.  But I am uncertain.

I do see from his Facebook that he is organizing an occasional wedding, but given the severe male-to-female ratio in Canada (1.05 males to every 1 females), this must be tricky.

Grant gets his revenge.
Grant gets his revenge.

It is also of note that he is performing funerals and these are probably on hold now until the ground thaws and they can dig the holes.

I worry about Grant.  He was such a frail boy and the harsh winters will take their toll on him.

I recently uncovered these pictures of me and my friend and realize that it is probably best that he is living on the other side of the border.  I’m not sure our two countries will ever be able to get along and our friendship was just a snapshot of the hostility our northern cousins feel toward us.  I think it has something to do with our ability to wear clothes that don’t include beaver pelts.

God Bless You, Grant Shenker, where ever you are!

Cupcakes are for Birthdays

We were invited to eat dinner and share cupcakes to help honor our friend on her birthday.  It was a wonderful evening and we ate well, sang in perfect pitch, and loved strong.  We’ve known Jen for twelve years now.  It’s been our honor to share a little bit of life with her and are so happy that we could be a part of the celebration.  Happy Birthday, my friend.

Our Pre-New Year Party

The Mullens Family came to visit, as is our custom each year.  Here are a few of the pictures that tell the story of their visit.

For Old Lang Syne

Our good friends, Dave and Lora at our home in Muncie, circa 1992
Our good friends, Dave and Delora at our home in Muncie, circa 1992. Unfortunately, this picture was ruined by light and time.

Dave and I attended seminary together and became good friends during our studies (actually, Dave studied and I didn’t-so-much).  We were ordained Deacon together, ordained Elder together. Our families celebrated the birth of nearly all our children, the graduation of a few and we will no doubt attend a wedding or two in days to come.  We’ve mourned with one another during family illness and deaths and we’ve shared the joys that come from great accomplishments in our own lives and the lives of our children.

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A picture taken September 2009.

Over the years we made it a tradition, despite distance and busy schedules, to gather our families during the summer months (if possible) and always during the New Year  Holiday.

This year was no exception.  While we were not able to spend the last night of the year with one another, as is our tradition, we were able to enjoy their company this past weekend.  While Dave and I watched football, the kids watched movies and played video games, and the women did what women do (whatever that is). We did our obligatory puzzle and at one point, we all gathered together to play a great game called “Fishbowl”.  And we all laughed until we were in tears.

Dave and Delora, Anita and Curt pose for another fun picture.
Dave and Delora, Anita and Curt pose for a last fun picture for 2012.

As they packed their luggage and pillows for their drive home, we stopped to take pictures and give hugs.  All too soon they were back on the road and our home was quiet again.

For some reason the song, Old Lang Syne kept ringing in my ears the entire weekend.  Every time I thought about our friendship, I thought of that song.  And so I did some in-depth research (which means I went to Wikipedia).  I’m glad I did.  I now like the song more than I did before and truly appreciate its meaning as it relates to our friends and our New Years’ tradition of gathering together.

The words of the song ring true:  Despite years of friendship, miles of separation, joy and hardship, we should never forget our friends of old.  These who have walked with us along the journey, shaped our spirits, molded our souls with their love and care will never be forgotten.  And I lift a cup to them, their love, and our future together.

Thank God for these wonderful friends of old lang syne.

OLD LANG SYNE

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne ?

CHORUS:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend !
And give us a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

Confessions of a Yearbook Photographer

1982 was a very good year for me.  One of the highlights was being the yearbook photographer.  I had permission to go places that were usually restricted, I had limitless film at my disposal, and I could do what I love:  Take Pictures.

And I was allowed to go to school activities for free just to snap a few shots of people doing what they did best, like sports, music or art.  I could wander into the Home Economics classroom, hold up my camera and get a nod from the teacher as I snapped away at kids making brownies.  I would stroll into the metal shop, without safety goggles, and capture kids welding metal or cutting off fingers.  Weight Room?  Piece of Cake.  Ag class? No problem.  Art room? Easy access.  Teachers’ lounge?  Okay, so I couldn’t go everywhere.  But nearly every other area of the school was mine.

But not all the shots were added to the yearbook.  Many ended up on the cutting room floor.  Not surprisingly, I also had access to the cutting room.  And so, I give you now, several pictures, never before seen, of the Class of ’82.

Christmas Magic

Each year, our small group gathers for a Christmas party.  We eat good snacks, drink cranberry tea, and separate into three different rooms:  The men in the living room to talk about work and football, the kids around the dining room table to play a game, the women in the summer porch doing who-knows-what-women-do.  Between each of the three rooms, Little A (now three) wanders handing out candy, members from a nativity set, and good cheer.

The highlight of the evening is the White Elephant Gift Exchange.  This is a creative bunch and this year Anita scored a home-made IPod speaker stand made from a Pringles can and some toilet paper.  I made off with a 600 piece puzzle in the shape of the map of the world.  Each piece is the shape of an actual country or state.  I’ve already volunteered to look for the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

But this group is not just about fun and games.  These people are my dear brothers and sisters.  They lighten our load.  They share the journey.  They listen well.  They love dearly.  They pray earnestly.  In short, these folks are amazing and I’m so thankful that I get to do life with them.