Like a Tree . . .

This very old and beautiful oak tree, on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, has withstood all weather-related assaults, including Katrina, which took out many homes situated farther from the lake. Such a great picture of the hope we have as those who are rooted in Him.

It’s been more than a whirlwind since I last blogged. Most of you who know us well believe our life is always a whirlwind . . . and if that’s so, then the last two weeks have been tornado-like. I’m writing as we wing our way westward, to Sacramento, and it’s good to have a few quiet moments to write.

The weekend of April 17–19 was packed (which is an understatement) — and every minute of it was even better than anticipated. It started Thursday night, when our first weekend guest, Liz Aleman, arrived at Logan. A senior at UCSB and on her way to law school at USF in the fall, Liz has been in our lives all of her life as she was “raised” coming to Family Camp at Campus by the Sea and eventually serving on staff. She was joined the next night by Chelsea Paskvan, another one of our lifelong Family Camp alums and veteran staff, who is a junior at Kent State, doing a fashion design internship in NYC currently. And then came Nathan Aleman and his fiancee, Julie, whose decision to attend Engagement Matters set the other visits in motion. It gave us such joy to have them with us for the weekend and to see each of their growing, vital hearts for the Lord and commitment to His purposes for each of their lives. That’s one of the best dividends of our thirty-three years of service at Campus by the Sea: seeing the legacy being faithfully passed down through the generations. All praise is His.

Nate and Jeannie King, hosted by Doug and Julie, completed our out-of-town contingent for the weekend as they flew in from Georgia to continue their commitment to serving on the Engagement Matters (EM) team. Let the games begin!

Ryan and Kelly Plosker hosted a parenting seminar at North Shore Baptist Church on Friday, April 17, which was both well-attended and well-received.

They accompanied us to Beverly, MA, for our parenting evening at North Shore Baptist Church. Ryan and Kelly Plosker are “missionally” serving at NSBC by bringing some marriage and parenting events to that thriving church. From single moms with adoptive children to large home-schooling families, the spectrum was represented and all seemed to share common issues and concerns regarding their children. Parents everywhere are hungry for guidance and reassurance, both of which we tried to give them. We look forward to a long partnership with that church.

We closed Legal Seafood after the event, talking well into the night with Nate and Jeannie, but still only scratching the surface of our full and changing lives.

A full house at Doug and Julie Macrae's Weston home for Engagement Matters, April 18 and 19. Lively discussions filled the weekend.

Having a “sold out” crowd at Engagement Matters was a huge encouragement to us after having a couple of under-subscribed EM weekends earlier this year. The very diverse group was interactive, open, and delightful as we spent Saturday and Sunday wrestling with the Biblical foundation for marriage along with the practical insights into what challenges many marriages. Hear from two of the couples and rejoice with us!
“I just wanted to thank you for a wonderful weekend this past couple of days. It was definitely very helpful and a blessing for both my fiance and me. The questions and sessions were very helpful in pointing us towards the right direction in terms of things to talk about and how to think about them.”
“We just wanted to let you know how refreshing and informative the Engagement Matters weekend was this past weekend. Thank you for taking the time to share with many of us young couples the wisdom you’ve gathered from your years of counseling as well as your own personal relationship. Keep up the great work!”

Don and Betsy Hasselbeck were the creative force behind Couples' Date Night at New England Chapel, Sat. night, April 18. A very large crowd gathered for desserts and two sessions on marriage.

Avoiding leaving any night unscheduled, we headed down to Franklin, MA, Saturday evening for a Couple’s Night Out at New England Chapel. This event, talked and dreamed about by Don and Betsy Hasselbeck for about three years, finally became a reality and we’d both agree it was worth waiting for. Betsy, who would make Martha Stewart proud, transformed the warehouse sanctuary of NEC into a welcoming, beautiful setting for the big crowd that responded to the Hasselbeck’s invitation to hear us speak on marriage. About an hour the event ended, Betsy wrote:
You guys, we can’t stop talking about tonight.
Praise GOD for a fun night for all. Not one person left unhappy tonight.
Job well well done.
You are wonderful servants that bless us all abundantly.
THANK YOU for “this evening!”
I could go on forever! We love you guys!
With more than a grateful heart,
Betsy and Don
It took us a long time to get to sleep that night, even as tired as we were. We were so thankful for so many answered prayers and for our awareness that God is at work in us and through us. Wow!

Engagement Matters ended Sunday late afternoon, and we seriously thought about going directly home without passing “go” or collecting two hundred dollars, BUT we persevered and drove into Boston to hear John Piper speak at Park Street Church. It was such a rare opportunity to share space with a man whose godly character, doctrinal beliefs, and prolific writings have impacted us so significantly that we decided to go for it and we’re so glad we did. He was brilliant—humbly and compassionately brilliant—and we left refreshed and renewed. And then went straight to bed!

Uncharacteristically, we participated in no Patriot’s Day activities. We each had some appointments and caught up on things neglected. We counseled on Tuesday, packed on Wednesday, and flew to New Orleans that night, April 22. Why not?

A little known fact about me is that my lineage comes through New Orleans. Both of my parents are Louisianans: my mom has French Cajun roots in New Orleans, and my dad grew up in small parishes throughout the state as the son of a pastor. Every summer of my growing-up years included a pilgrimage to Louisiana, with major time spent in Shreveport with my paternal grandparents and in New Orleans (including Mandeville, Metairie, Gretna, Covington, Baton Rouge, etc.). It was therefore without hesitation that we accepted an invitation to do a marriage conference at Maplewood Baptist Church in Sulphur, Louisiana (about 3 hours west of New Orleans).

I hadn’t been in New Orleans for 31 years, so this five-day trip became my “trip to bountiful.” It will be impossible to describe the myriad memories stirred by sights and sounds unique to that part of the country, as well as the emotions evoked by reconnecting with many of my extended family, but suffice it to say I cherished every moment of the trip. Arriving at 1 a.m. Thursday, I had a hard time going to sleep at our airport hotel due to excitement not unlike that experienced on Christmas Eve. I was so looking forward to rediscovering people, places, and tastes that had contributed to many of my favorite childhood memories. The morning came soon enough and Paul and I were off to the French Quarter: first stop, Cafe Du Monde.

Paul and I have beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde in the New Orleans' French Quarter, stirring many of my childhood memories.

It was even better than I remembered. How often does that happen? As Paul and I sat in the fresh-air, very casual cafe, and bit into fresh-out-of-the-fryer, steaming hot beignets buried in powdered sugar, I was a kid again...only instead of cold milk, I was sipping good ole’ Louisiana coffee with chicory, cut with steamed milk. As a jazz band filled the air with music that’s at its best in this part of the world and we savored our beignets, I told Paul one of my favorite family French Quarter stories. As the story goes, our family of nine (two parents, six daughters, and one son) ventured into town for our annual treat of beignets. After circling the blocks several times trying to find on-street parking, we found a spot—but as my dad pulled the station wagon (with no air conditioning and sweaty plastic-covered bench seats) forward to back in, another car tried to pull in behind him and take “our” space. My unstoppable mom leaped out of the front seat, stood in the parking space and shouted to the encroaching car, “You’ll have to run over me to get this space—and those seven children are mine.” Wide-eyed at this somewhat unusual move by my mom, I remember watching the sneaky car slink off as my dad claimed the spot. No expletives, no violence—just unwillingness to be cheated out of a parking space. Love it.

My second cousin, Midge, flanked by two of her children, Lynne and Ridley, stand on the porch of her newly constructed modular home, which replaced her hurricane-ravaged home. She is situated within a half mile of the 17th Street levee, which broke during the storm, sending eight feet of flood waters through her neighborhood.

After spending several hours in the French Quarter on Thursday, we joined two of my first cousins for lunch in Metairie. Thirty-one years evaporated as we reconnected and picked up where we left off. Kathy and Donna were two of my favorite cousins and we didn’t run out of things to talk about. Later, we spent that evening with my mother’s first cousin, 80-year-old Midge, who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina 3.5 years ago. Being situated within a block of the 17th Street levee, she lost everything (including 25% of her body weight in the ensuing years) except one table and only recently, after almost three years in a FEMA trailer, has moved back to her property which is now occupied by a raised modular home. Along with two of her five children, we had a phenomenal dinner of fried catfish topped with crawfish etouffee and fresh crawfish at the local “Galley Restaurant”. With Spanish moss hanging from the trees, and the moisture-laden air carrying smells unique to the humid, swampy environs of Louisiana, my whirling mind never stopped remembering moments in time experienced only here.

Friday contained one more family reconnection before we drove to Sulphur. Another first cousin, Billy, and his wife, Janet, treated us to lunch at their Black Orchid Bistro, and we heard more family history than we could absorb. They are both brilliant, articulate, and successful entrepreneurs and we loved every minute with them. Their son and his precious family run the bistro, so we got to meet them for the first time. My Uncle Billy would be proud of his legacy in these two families.

Off to Sulphur we drove, processing the previous 18 hours. We’re both really sorry we let 31 years lapse between visits, and that our daughters have never been to this land of my ancestors. We hope to change that before long.

A creative "home improvement" centerpiece sets the stage for Maplewood Baptist Church's (Sulphur, LA) first marriage conference.

Our weekend in Sulphur was wonderful in every way. Mark and Deb McCormick were quintessential Southern hosts, welcoming us into their home and treating us like family. The conference started Friday night with a light supper and two talks. We felt an immediate and sincere connection with the audience, which only grew throughout the weekend. We were so impressed with the hearts of this congregation, which we soon discovered aptly reflected the hearts of their senior pastor and his wife, Brother Ronnie and Ms. June. Not only were they open and receptive to the teaching, but they were also interactive and so fun. We laughed a lot and got a number of new illustrations from our interactions with them. :)

During the weekend, Paul gives young apprentice, Pierce McCormick, a lesson in making chocolate chip cookies.

The conference continued Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm and concluded on Sunday with their worship service. Brother Ronnie led a powerful conclusion to the conference by extending a recommitment invitation to the couples. A huge number of couples made their way to the front of the church or stood holding hands in the pews as he prayed a blessing over them. It was a moving and meaningful way to end.

Senior Pastor "Brother" Ronnie and Mrs. June, were most gracious and supportive as we ministered to their flock.

A church-wide picnic followed and we so enjoyed hanging with this exceptional group of families. Brother Ronnie talked about having us back in a year, and we’d be thrilled if that happened.

Mark and Deb McCormick with sons Chase, Bryce, and Pierce, hosted us all weekend in Sulphur, and through their gracious hospitality, made sure we'd want to come back again!

We drove to Baton Rouge and met up with another first cousin and his family at a close-to-the-highway Starbucks. Frank is on my dad’s side of the family and we were so happy to have time with his wife and children, whom we were meeting for the first time. And they’re all grown up. It was such a joy to connect deeply on a spiritual level and to see how they’re living out their faith.

My Uncle Don and Aunt Ann's family gathered in Old Mandeville for a reunion in our honor. It was a joy to reconnect with family we hadn't seen since 1978.

From there, Old Mandeville was our next stop, at the home of my Uncle Don (and his wife Aunt Ann), my mom’s only remaining sibling. Uncle Don had called in “his” troops and four of his five children and their spouses and families converged at their home. Their fifth child lives in San Antonio, Texas, and we’ve been with her family twice in the last few years. We had a blast—not just eating great food, but seeing these dear families that we’re related to! The evening was all too short, but we all agreed that a family reunion needs to be in the offing.

My favorite Uncle Don and Aunt Ann were delightful hosts and historians. They helped make this "trip to bountiful" truly that.

Uncle Don and Aunt Ann graciously hosted us that night and it was so nice to chat with them in the quiet of their sweet home. The next morning, Paul and I walked Lake Pontchartrain with Uncle Don and caught up on more family history. He’s sharp as a tack and at 80 years of age has many, many Mandeville memories in storage that he happily shared with us. We saw where one of my mom’s childhood homes was; until Katrina, it was still intact. The lakefront property now hosts a modern looking home up on stilts, completely lacking the charm of these old Mandeville homes and cottages. One point of interest Uncle Don pointed out was a lot which boasted a huge oak tree, unaffected by any of the storms that have been so destructive. He said that his Grandpa Shiell had bought the lot because of the tree. (See the photo at the beginning of this blog post.)

It was such a picture of the many scriptural metaphors regarding trees. A strong, well-watered tree with a competent root system will be strong even in the storms. It was amazing to consider that though Katrina took out thousands of homes and structures, roadways, and bridges, it didn’t fell this tree. What a hope-giving sight!

We hated for our visit with Uncle Don and Aunt Ann to end. Besides my parents, they are the only remaining aunt and uncle on either side of my family. So much history and folklore, so many family legends and tales, so many insights and experiences will end when their numbered days are up. We felt grateful for the time to hear the stories which remind us that we’re part of a much larger network that has contributed to who we are today. It was truly a bountiful trip...and one we’ll never forget.

Our last night was spent with cousin Kathy and her husband Billy, who served us homemade red beans and rice for supper and provided a lovely guest room for our final night. That was such a treat and we left with confidence that we’ll see them again before long.

Home, briefly. We arrived back on Tuesday, counseled Wednesday, and now today we’re off to California. After speaking at Bayside’s THRIVE ‘09 conference, we’ll do a marriage conference for Bayside of South Sacramento (BOSS) on Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday, el cinco de Mayo, we’ll fly from California to Massachusetts to Uganda!! Pray for us!

Our hearts are full of gratitude and we are more aware than ever that it’s worth investing in “tree maintenance” in order to stand firm in times of storm. That’s our prayer for you as well.