Posted by: joelkeene | December 25, 2017

Christmas Decorating and the Singular We

It’s the Christmas season again, and nothing much has changed. With the finale of Thanksgiving welcomes the responsibilities of climbing to the attic to lug down totes of Christmas decorations, a joint effort that always cracks me up. I love my wife for her unflinching talent using the singular “we.”

“We need to put up the lights outside today.”


Guess I’ll finish watching this show later.

She’s never clipped one light on the gutters. She’s never climbed the ladder to hang a two-foot section of lights only to climb down again, move the ladder two feet and repeat, an exhaustingly tedious task. I’m certain she’s never stepped foot outside while “we” decorate the exterior— sans the occasional commentary on what I’m doing wrong.

Before going outside, though, I reluctantly climb the attic steps and carry down the tubs of Christmas decorations for her. Because anyone can climb seven steps on a ladder, but if that ladder ascends to an attic, it must be a man who ascends!

Back outside I go then. My jacket, my beanie, and my 12-foot ladder. We illuminate Sonora Creek with a contemporary yet tastefully simple celebration of Christmas. An epic feat for “we” indeed.

Fold and hang my ladder, my brow cold but sweaty. Wipe it with my beanie. Unzip my jacket to go inside for a drink and football. Well done, Saul.

It’s not the house I left though. Now the aroma of gingerbread. Now the twinkle of garland hanging from the mantle. Now the melodies of Bing and Buble and She and Him.

From these dusty, plastic tubs, tradition and memory. Hers and mine that we share now.

We dance a bit. A little wine.

Something beautiful.

Nothing much has changed though. I remember listening to Roger Whitaker while my mom decorated the house on Wolf Run three decades ago. The popping of vinyl while she carefully opened boxes of decorations to place around the house and myriad ornaments we had made in Sunday School to adorn the tree.

I had few responsibilities then beyond not being a jerk, and though I messed that up at times, I never did when Whitaker was croonin’. With his melodic narrative of Darcy the Dragon came the magical holiday transformation of the house, and I wasn’t interested in betraying that.

I remember the train platform under the tree, the personalized stockings hung on the mantle, the bobalki my mom wrapped up one year as a sick, cruel joke of a gift for me.

Traditions and memories all the same. Some gone. Some still around. Some a sick, cruel joke waiting to be reciprocated.

And now I’ve heard the Christmas stories and traditions of Cheryl’s family. I hear the same anecdotes every year. Retold so they can remember, and— I like to think— so I can become a part of the tradition as well. Now I know the words, and that is enough. Like music I suppose.

Nothing has changed, and that’s what I was thankful for a few weeks ago. And that won’t change.

“We need to go get a tree.”



Posted by: joelkeene | March 10, 2014

When I Least Expect It

When I Least Expect It – Feb 24, 2014

I don’t know why I was surprised. I knew when I started paging through the church newsletters from 30 years of Larry’s ministry that I might find some “treasures” among the various musings typical of such writings: promotions of upcoming events, worship and educational opportunities, celebrations, the state of the congregation, and of course, the infamous stewardship appeals. And there in the folder labeled 1985 was the article Larry wrote a year after his own father’s death in 1984.

It will soon be 2 years since Larry died, and though this anniversary is not as difficult as the first, it still manages to taunt and coax emotions. But you see, when I read this particular article I knew it was something I wanted to share, particularly with my children.

It is a mystery to me how God works in our lives. But, I am certain this little “gem” was there for me to find and read today. And that was God’s doing. Because death has likely affected all of us in some way, I would like to share—

Easter, 1985

About this time last year my father began his final days of life. On that Easter Sunday a phone call informed me that he had collapsed and was in the intensive care unit at the hospital. The emphysema had escalated, and its various effects were beginning to come together for the final assault which would end his life on Mother’s Day.

In the year since then I have come to know him differently than when he was alive. As I remember our times together, a new understanding of his words and deeds is given birth. The faith in which he lived, the principles for which he stood, and the love with which he reached out seem to be more sharply defined. Particularly his love.

There is a pain which accompanies these memories. It is not the pain of absence, although I miss him greatly. It is, rather, the pain of silence; the pain of having left unsaid the words which I would like to have said. The memories bring with them the realization that I put up barriers which were not necessary; that there were opportunities to speak love which, for reasons I no longer remember, I let pass. The pain of silence is the memory which asks, “Why couldn’t I speak my love?”

Easter brings a word of grace to us, who suffer this pain of silence. For the Resurrected Lord promises that the words may yet be spoken. Death does not have the last word. And because of this, the words spoken—or left unspoken—in this world are not the last words to be spoken, either. The conversation has merely been interrupted for awhile. The day will come when, gathered together again in a new and eternal life, we will have the opportunity to continue the conversation, speaking the words of our heart. The day will come when all shall be forgiven, and love will speak loudest.

In the meantime, we can practice for that day, speaking the words of the heart to one another.

The Lord is risen.


Peace and blessings!


Posted by: joelkeene | December 23, 2013

Except for Maybe the First Time

“Except for Maybe the First Time”

Well, I wasn’t going to write this year, but now that time is at a premium, it seemed like the Keene thing to do. I have always worked best under pressure, and I have to leave shortly for the airport, so now is the time.

2013 turned out to be a fairly uneventful one, aside from the birth of my fifth granddaughter, Melody Scott, born the last day of April, now sharing her birthday with Saul’s wife, Cheryl. She is a delight, and her sister, Penelope loves her, as do her three cousins, Ryan, Henley and Gemma. When we have our Monthly Keene Sunday gathering, it is quite busy and loud. Needless to say, there is much giggling, screaming, running and “fighting.” After all, that’s what little kids do. Plus, they always seem to survive, despite the parents.

I continue to do some substitute teaching here and there, but I have also started working retail for the holiday season. I call my job at James Avery Jewelers my “hobby jobbie.” I enjoy the change, although, not having ever worked retail before, there is a lot to learn. And, it’s good to be on the other side of the counter for a change. It gives me a whole new perspective on the unhappy customer.

Travel took me to St. Louis twice this year—once for my mother’s 88th birthday and once for the annual Slovakfest at the church where I was baptized, confirmed and married. Spending time with family and many dear friends was special. In August, I went with my brother-in-law, Art, on a drive from Los Angeles to Medford, Oregon, to spend some time with our sister-in-law, Betsy and her children. The visit was cut short, however, because of the forest fires that were sending smoke throughout the region. Apparently, this is an annual occurrence for that time of year. It was a beautiful area, when you could see the hills.

In December, I returned to Florida and Disneyworld to see family and Mickey Mouse. I got to watch some of the filming for the Disney Christmas Day Parade that will be shown “live” on TV on Christmas Day. At Epcot we were treated to the Christmas Candlelight Choirs performance with Whoopi Goldberg presenting the Christmas narrative. I was so glad to be able to spend time with my brother, Steve, and his wife, Carol.

And now I am back to Houston, my daily schedule and routines, my “hobby jobbie” and the people I love and care for the most. I had the morning to myself today, so I cleaned up the patio, trimmed up the deck plants, and headed out to run errands.

After rushing to Kroger to get the last of the fixings for the traditional Christmas Eve meal for my family gathering, I remembered Larry having written about this event in a Kwikies. It was dated December 28, 2001. I pulled it up on the computer, and having re-read it, I had some laughs, shed a few tears (of course), and remembered the events of that particular Christmas Eve. Allow me to share this Kwikies entitled “Christmas Traditions” with you, as once again I will be celebrating Christmas Eve in the same tradition with all three children, their spouses, five granddaughters, and also, my brother-in-law, Art and nephew, Brandon.

Kwikies, 12/28/01
Christmas Traditions

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have used my kids as the illustration to kick off the Christmas Eve sermon, gloating as I did about last year when Sue and I got to wake them on Christmas morning after they’d been asleep for only a couple of hours or so due to doing what college kids do best, i.e., partying. But the public gloat of that memory was worth all the years when I did Christmas Day on less than two hours’ sleep, having spent Christmas Eve after worship assembling toys and such. Not to mention it was a foretaste of the feast to come (though I hope not too soon) when they themselves will lose sleep over their own children, while grandpa and grandma are tucked snugly in bed (hopefully on a boat in the Caribbean, but probably not, since I know already that She Whom God Gave Me would never permit such an absence). In any case, justice is sweet.

Though they, having heard the sermon, I suppose resolved not to permit that illustration again, so that on Christmas Day Mom and I did not have the opportunity to jump on their beds and rip off their blankets yelling, “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas! Time to open gifts!” We all got up at about the same time and eventually, after 45 minutes of making coffee and other preparations, got around to opening gifts. We do it by turns, and that works pretty well, except for this year Deborah’s boyfriend, Jonathan, who is from Ohio and had spent Christmas Eve with us, also had 10 bazillion gifts from his family, and still had a stack of them when we were all done, this earning the requisite Keene grief for it.

Our Christmas celebration officially begins on Christmas Eve at about 4:00 (depending on what time I have to be at church) with a mongrelized traditional Slovak Christmas dinner inherited from my wife’s side of bean soup, sausage, potato pancakes, and some other stuff. I say mongrelized because the potato pancakes are not really Slovak, being also known as German pancakes. They’re a compromised substitute for something called “halushki” (I don’t have a clue as to the spelling), which looks like boiled big bird droppings and tastes like cement. Real Slovaks love ’em; they swoon over them (or it, again, I don’t know). They’re supposed to be served with fried cabbage, which led to our First Christmas Argument, eventually leading to the Second Great Compromise of marital life: I’ll do without the turkey dinner on Christmas if you’ll do without the halushki. So we have German potato pancakes, which are good even if out of a box, but not like my grandma used to make.

The meal, though, actually begins with what now will be forever known as “The Hastings Cheer of Christmas,” again from the Slovak side of the family: a little devotional service complete with unaccompanied singing which we don’t handle very devotionally, and square communion wafers (you know, the ones that taste like styrofoam) with honey drizzled on them. Another Slovak custom of smearing honey on the foreheads of single folks so that it reflects in the candlelight of church and all know who’s eligible, was also dropped pretty early on—about as soon as the kids could object—in my recollection.

It got nailed with the “Hastings Cheer” moniker by son, Saul, who was a good, part time employee of Hastings Books in Seguin until the day he got into a tiff with his manager about his refusal to do the “Hastings Cheer” at an employee meeting one Saturday morning about 7:00, which is not a good time for any college student, to wit: “Do the cheer.” “No. What does doing the cheer have to do with serving the customers well?” “Do the cheer or quit.”

So, he’s currently unemployed. The Hastings Cheer story has entered the Keene Anthology of Silliness in the World, and when, in explaining to Jonathan the upcoming devotional service connected with our meal, he quipped, “Oh yeah, the Hastings Cheer of Christmas,” we all knew that whatever slight bit of pious seriousness still clung to that thing was now gone forever. Indeed, we laughed so hard while hearing about the Word made flesh and singing “Silent Night” and drizzling honey on styrofoam wafers, that we will never be able to be religiously somber with it again, except for maybe the first time somebody is missing at the table, and even then probably not for very long.

Sue, of course, is the tradition setter in our house, and has taken great doses of (usually good-natured) grief about it over the years, especially from me. But I’m thankful for it because that is the foundation upon which these other things can happen for us. And even when we laugh, still there is this moment which binds us together in love and strengthens us for the future with cherished memories.

Because the Word did become flesh, you know, borne into a family with traditions and such. And so made these things holy and good.


Christmas is a time to remember and to create new memories. Whatever your celebrations or traditions, I hope your moments together are good and blessed.


Posted by: joelkeene | July 12, 2013

First Weeks of Summer 2013 – Sue’s Thoughts

During these first weeks of summer I have spent some time with resting, recreation, and reflection.  My son, Joel, and I have talked time and again about posting on the Keene’s Kwikies blog, but “busyness” always seems to get in the way.  But, today I decided to share some of my reflections. 

I was watching a movie the other day and the main character was speaking of his deceased loved one.  He remarked that “there is no memorial or headstone to mark his remains or memory.”  I was struck by this as I made the conscious decision to have Larry’s remains cremated and scattered in places I felt would please him.  This discussion between Larry and I actually took place one time long before he became ill.  In asking what he even would like to have happen upon his death, his response was “I won’t care, so do what you want.”  Not being one to experience comfort from visiting a “spot,” I was certain that the ocean—he being a sailor of sorts– and the golfing grounds he frequented annually with his buddies were the appropriate locations.  And so it was done. 

As for the blog, I have often wondered of his musings on newsworthy issues.  On the national scene:  the death of Bin Laden, the 2012 election, Newtown and gun control, healthcare, immigration, DOMA, and the most recent announcement that Good Hair Perry will not seek reelection to the governorship.  Add to that the various weather tragedies:  hurricane Sandy and tornadoes in Oklahoma. 

Within the church:  the reelection of Bishop Mike, the election of the first openly gay bishop in a committed relationship, and the retirements, travels and deaths of clergy colleagues.

And on the home scene: the births of two new granddaughters, namely, Gemma Lawrence, and Melody Scott, middle-named in his honor, the 92nd birthday of his mother, and lastly, life at home (pretty much around the clock) with his spouse, namely She Who Must Be Obeyed,  who retired this past year.  I’m certain this increased togetherness would have provided plenty of material to write about. 

I am left only to imagine.  But, I am sure it would be profoundly well said.

Having Larry’s writings has been a blessing for me.  It is a visit, a reminder, and a nudge.  Recently, I came across this Kwikies entitled Wedding Bell Blues that was originally posted on May 4, 2005.   This Sunday would be the 40th anniversary of our commitment to marriage.  Clearly the marriage was not perfect, but it survived and love endured.  So with or without your permission:

Keenes Kwikies, 5/4/2005

Wedding Bell Blues

It is, perhaps, pretty close to being almost official that this little corner of the Keene clan will experience its first wedding since She Who Must Be Obeyed and I hooked up back in 1973 (July 14th, to be exact, which, as you undoubtedly know and celebrate, is Bastille Day in France and has been a nice summary of our marriage experience since, oh, July 16th of that year, as in the storming of it).  Boner—my eldest—is going to commit formally in the presence of God and all to Mute Girl (she who said nothing the first time our family met her—for obviously good reasons if you’ve ever been at one of our family gatherings:  it’s bad enough to meet the family of the boyfriend, even worse when his dad is a preacher, and even worse than that when pastordad smokes, drinks beer, and goes “Booga, booga, booga!” upon hearing at the table that she’s a little shy—though she has overcome the reticence here more recently and is a real delight:  he’s done well) till death them do part.

Thus we’ve been doing the pre-wedding shuffles:  when? where? how?  And especially,  what kind of bucks will be required?  Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice for the parents of the groom to meet the parents of the bride maybe even sometime before the event.  Calling forth, too, the inevitable fatherly advice to son, the same this pastor shares with all grooms-to-be in pre-marital counseling:  “Keep your mouth shut until after the wedding, because you have no say—absolutely zero—in what takes place that day.  This is stuff women have been dreaming about since they were, like, four.”

So it is quite timely that my internet buddy, John-Mark, forwarded an editorial article in which William Raspberry quotes  World War Two (Lutheran?) faith hero pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing from his Nazi prison cell in 1943 to a young couple about to be married:  “Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man . . . .It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

Catch that?  “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

I’ve been married for 32 years to the same woman (well, actually not the same woman, because nobody stays the same over that amount of time;  it’s not for nothing that we say—unfortunately usually accusatorily—“You’re not the same person I married”; well, duh—but she still has the same name), and I’d say about eight of those years have been good, as in, The Way I Want It To Be.  Her number of years of Having The Husband I Want might be even fewer, though I can’t imagine how.  We’ve come real close to divorce a few times (but no more than can be counted on one, no, two hands), but backed off.

It’s hard to say why we backed off, because when you’re close to divorce, you’re not liking that person very much anyway (with profoundly taxing discipline I avoided sharing with her the new names by which I was referring to her at those times; okay, not names—adjectives).  A divorce would have been bad for my career.  And when I thought about her raising the kids alone, or with her family, I couldn’t endure the picture of how screwed up they’d be come adulthood.  And, of course, I saw first hand the havoc wreaked on the (church) community:  a negative impact on worship statistics, the savaging of committees and programs, and declining financial income are just the most obvious of a list that also includes the stress on communal trust as people take sides and, in fact, the demoralization of the community in general, especially if there are kids because the church—or somebody—is going to have to pick up the slack there for the missing parent (and there is always a missing parent; one of the divorcees always leaves the church in which they had been participating).

So we stayed married probably for all the wrong reasons:  for the sake of the career, the kids, the community.  Nor do we feel strong, romantic notions for one another (well, maybe once a year):  our love is defined not so much anymore (if ever) by Valentine’s Day tinglings, but by the history we’ve shared.

Bonhoeffer’s right, you know:  it’s not your love that sustains the marriage, but the marriage which sustains your love.  The marriage which leads to the one day realization that even when I hate her, I love her more.


Have a good rest of the summer!


Posted by: joelkeene | December 26, 2012

Keene Christmas Letter 2012

It has been relatively quiet as we come to the tail of this year. We’ve been tied up working, taking care of our families, and getting geared up for the holidays. There was much anxiety around this year’s holidays as one might imagine, but we thankfully got to share it together manning our duties at mom’s place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Of course, traditions are the same but the flavors are a bit different now with new generations doing the receiving and the older ones doing the Ho, Ho, Ho-ing. To that, the responsibilities of the Keene Family Christmas Letter among other things fall to She Who Hos Alone (keep it in context). Enjoy and Merry Christmas!


Christmas 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

This Christmas season will be one of the most difficult to celebrate, as I will be celebrating for the first time without Larry.  I remember worshipping last Christmas Eve at Christ the Servant Lutheran along with most of Larry’s family, who came to spend the weeks surrounding Christmas with us at our home.

I am so grateful for that wish of his (he was forever the planner and dreamer) that brought his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews to Houston to celebrate this most holy of seasons together with us.

As this season is now in full swing, I have spent some time reflecting on the changes in my life.  Aside from the obvious, I retired from full-time teaching and now work when I want as a substitute teacher.

I am not completely sold on this decision to substitute, but it works for now.  I am open to new possibilities.  So, if something interesting should present itself, you just never know…

The kids are all very much busy with their own families and careers.  I am fortunate that they all live within a reasonable drive from my house, so I get to see them fairly often.  They find time to visit and fix things for me here at the house, usually at the cost of a meal with beers.  They are also very generous in including me in their family events, and for this I am thankful.  We did raise good kids.  With much joy,

I am pleased to have a new granddaughter, Gemma Lawrence, who joins her sisters, Ryan and Henley.  Another grandchild will join the family in the early spring.  He/she will join his/her sister, Penelope.

I want to recognize the gift of new, renewed and strengthened friendships that I experienced this year.

I am in a different place than I was a year ago, and I see things from a different perspective, and that has been good.  The presence of these relationships in my life has made things just a bit easier and a little less painful.  Thank you.

Sadly, in June, we experienced the death of my stepfather-in-law, Garvin, from cancer.  In October, my sister-in-law and dearest friend, Kerry, died due to organ failure while waiting for a transplant. Their absence is profoundly felt.

Along with two trips to California to be with family during those times of loss and mourning, I was also able to make a few other trips.  The kids and their families were able to visit me during a week at the lake home of a dear friend.  There was much resting, relaxing and some boating on Lake Palestine.  One of two trips to St. Louis was for attending my 45th high school class reunion.  The thought of going was a little frightening, but I survived, and even had fun.  Then a few weeks back, I was able to go to Orlando and visit with my brother, Steve, and his wife, Carol.   Attending the Christmas Candlelight Processional and listening to the choirs, while hearing actor, Andy Garcia read the Christmas narrative was a highlight of my visit to Epcot.  Turns out the parks aren’t quite as crowded the first week of December as at other times of the year.

My brother-in-law, Art, and his two boys will be joining us for Christmas this year.  It will be a different kind of Christmas for both of our families.  But, it will be different together.  And that will be good.

Traditionally, our family put out a Christmas letter using comic strips that shared a little something of each family member.  I came across this strip from Calvin and Hobbes (one of our favorites) that I would like to share.   I know Larry would laugh heartily and approve.


Perhaps, he is bouncing to the beat of Brubeck at this very moment.

At the start of every Christmas Eve service, Larry would invite those gathered to share the Christmas greeting in different languages.  Folks would volunteer–

Feliz Navidad (Spanish)

Joyeux Noel (French)

Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian)

Frohliche Weihnachten (German)

God Jul (Norwegian)

And lastly, Vesele Vianoce (Slovak)

Then he would follow up with, “No matter how you say it, the message is still the same, ‘Merry Christmas’. “

I will miss that this year.  But, it gives me a sense of joy that I am able to share this message with you.   A blessed Christmas to you and a happy and grace-filled new year!



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