Thanksgiving is coming up and I’m thinking of time with family — the challenges and opportunities that can often present. And I’m thinking about my Uncle Mac. So, I’m offering you a story I’ve told before, but seems both fitting to the season as well as to what we’ll look at this Sunday. I hope it sparks some story mining for you this coming Thanksgiving week.
It was the winter break, 9th Grade, and I was sitting alone in our living room one evening. A bunch of my friends left earlier for a Colorado ski trip. So, it was going to be a long, lonely, and unseasonably warm week for me.
Uncle Mac dropped by unexpected and stepped into the living room. Dressed in a heavy winter parka, hiking boots and grasping an empty Jansport frame backpack, he had a crazy wild, “let’s go hunting grizzlies with our bare hands,” look in eyes.
“Wanna go climb some mountains?” he blurted out.
“What, now? Where are we going climbing the middle of the night in Texas?” I snapped back.
“We’re going to West Texas!” he smiled.
This had me baffled. I remember driving west with Uncle Mac for hours and hours and hours on our way to a hunting trip. The only things I remembered seeing were tumbleweeds, dry flatlands, oil wells, and rattlesnakes. I mentioned that and he smiled.
“It’s out past all that! And it’s really beautiful. You won’t believe it.”
“I don’t believe it now,” I argued.
But I was looking at a week of tedious TV, boredom, and feeling sorry for myself. And Uncle Mac wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So I stuffed the backpack he gave me, grabbed a warm jacket, hugged Mom, jumped into his truck, and we started out I-20 W — heading for the Guadalupe Mountains. It was 8:00 pm.
Uncle Mac told tales, embellished and improvised history, hollered and made up crazy lyrics to country tunes on the radio as we passed the night.
Eventually, we exited the Interstate and started down a long straight state highway, the high beams illuminating the only thing visible in that emptiness — two lanes of asphalt with an inky blackness on either side. We were barreling down the road when, without warning, Uncle Mac turned off the headlights! Everything went dark!
I screamed, “Hey, not funny!”
But he slowed the truck to a crawl and exclaimed, “Look at the stars, Tommy!”
It was crazy. But they suddenly appeared out of nowhere, millions of them, as if they hadn’t been there until we got far enough away from one reality to see there was another one entirely. Obviously, it had been there all along. I just couldn’t see it. Now, it was so dark, it was like being suspended in a field of sparkling lights.
He smiled and pulled over into a Picnic Area off the highway. And we slept in the pickup for a few hours till the sun came up.
That next morning, we drove down for a couple of hours looking out at miles and miles of narrow two-lane and dry fields of burnt orange dirt and tumbleweeds in every direction. And, even though I knew they were still there, I thought about how the stars hide behind the daylight and the daylight that hides the darkness.
A tiny shack or cabin appeared in the distance down the road. It was the only thing we’d seen for an hour or so. It took a while, but we finally got close enough to see it was a small café sitting at the intersection of our highway with another two-lane highway.
The place sat, all by itself, looking like something left over from the Dust Bowl days — a tiny wood-framed shack, dirty pealing white paint, a single gas pump (“Regular Only”), a couple of pickups, a VW bus and a Mercedez Benz parked on the gravel lot. Over the window, a beat up tin sign read, “Last Chance Cafe and Gas.”
So many ways to read that, I thought!
Uncle Mac said, “They have the best biscuits and gravy anywhere around!”
Duh, it was the only thing anywhere around!
About a dozen people were inside the café — some families, a young couple, cowboys, farmers, us “city folk” — a strange mix of people. But it was the only place around. Uncle Mac talked to me about people living a hardscrabble life, about money, oil and poverty, fear and fortitude, about my friends and connecting with people everywhere, and being too preoccupied with myself to see what’s right in front of me. He could get fairly pedantic with these philosophical conversations — downright pretentious. But then he launched into one of his jokes. Even our waitress sat down at the table to listen.
“So, this fella gets on a train in Fort Worth. And the conductor comes down the aisle collecting everyone’s ticket.”
“Where’s the train going?” I interrupted.
“I said, where’s the guy going?”
“That’s not really important to the joke, Tommy!” he muttered impatiently.
The waitress laughed and said, “Might be. I’m kinda curious, too.”
“Fine. He’s on a train to San Antonio!”
The waitress smiled at me and added, “I love San Antonio. Nice place to visit…”
“Anyway,” now my uncle interrupted as others around us were listening in. “So, this fella was on a train from Fort Worth, TO SAN ANTONIO, when the conductor came down the aisle collecting tickets. The fella stood up, reached up and grabbed his briefcase above him, opened and was rustling through everything. Then he searched his wallet and his pants pockets. He searched his bag and even searched his seat mate’s bag! He was getting a little panicked… ‘I did buy a ticket,’ he told the conductor who patiently smiled back. Finally, the conductor said, ‘Hey, Mr, your vest. Did you check your vest pocket? Most men put their tickets there.’ The guy stopped searching and said, ‘Oh, no,’ the guy said, ‘I can’t look there. Cause if it’s not there, then I’ve lost all hope!’”
Everyone around the table laughed; though I’m not sure we all knew why… But making sense didn’t seem to matter.
We took our time with breakfast and talked to a couple who’d just been to Guadalupe Peak and hiked the Range. About two hours later (seriously, it was a two-hour breakfast) we finally got up to leave.
“Have a great day,” my Uncle told the waitress.
“It’s the only kind we make around here,” she laughed.
And we started down the highway, as I thought about stars and people and scanned the flatlands for mountains.
This Sunday, November 18, as I continue our series “Jesus H. Christ — the man, the history, and the mystery”, I want to look at the story of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been teaching and healing on the west side of the Sea of Galilea (more like a large lake than a sea). Suddenly, Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “Let’s go to the other side of the lake.” And that one line introduces to Mark’s listeners so much gossip, myth, discomfort and terror, that no one is really surprised the first person they meet over there is a man possessed with a Demon named “Legion”. And by the time we get to the end of the story, I think we’re left with a curious thought — maybe Jesus H. Christ doesn’t want us to follow him. Sometimes you’ve got to get into the dark a ways to really see the light. This Sunday, “Sometimes Jesus Says, Don’t Follow Me” with the music of Imagine Dragons, Jackson Brown and Susan Tedeschi.
Hope to see you Sunday!
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven