Friday, December 28, 2007
Well, today, on our way back from the new indoor playland at the North West Street McDonalds (which on this cold rainy day was P-A-C-K-E-D), I decided to stop at one of those kiddy haircut places where the kids can watch a video and sit sports car while they get their hair cut. I thought that maybe if he was distracted, Eli would sit happily in a plastic jeep, not even knowing he was being sheered.
Man am I an idiot.
Have you ever wrestled a two year old, sitting in plastic jeep, being chased with a woman with sharp objects? The woman kept insisting that this wasn't the worst behaved child she'd ever dealt with... but I bet that's not what she tells her husband later tonight. What a fiasco. She asked how I wanted it, and I said "Short, so we don't have to do this again anytime soon." Now poor Eli looks like he's about to go into the Marines. What's more, after the torture of holding him down to trim his sideburns and neck, the woman poured baby powder down his back under the auspice of trying to keep him from itching. Now, covered in hair, dried tears, and baby powder, I'm sure Eli is dreaming about his revenge as we speak. I'll have to sleep with one eye open for the next week.
Ah, but you say I over exaggerate? Well, as I sit here pondering the bath I'll need to give the boy after he wakes up (apparently to wear out Eli you need to thrust into a playland with 3000 over-sugared kids who have all been cooped up during Christmas vacation and then sit on him while he vainly attempts to get away with the lady with the clippers) from his nap, here are the ten other things I'd rather do than take Eli to get another haircut:
10) Eat dark red kimchi with nothing but hot green tea to wash it down: Happened to me once in Seoul earlier this year. Rule of thumb is the darker red the kimchi is, the hotter it is. Good thing to remember if you are ever in Korea.
9) Ride with 13 teenagers in an enclosed, non air-conditioned van for 15 hours after they've had no hot showers in ten days in the dead of July: I thought a moose with bowel issues died in the back seat.
8) Move, anywhere, ever again: Remember, we're the family that this past June moved it's fourth time in four years, once while Aimee was nine-months pregnant, so I know what I'm talking about.
7) Walk a tightrope 300 feet in the air: I once got hives just thinking about climbing a ladder.
6) Go to a McDonald's Playland with 3000 other kids and their parents: It's a great facility, but yippin yimmini was that place nuts... and at 1pm in the afternoon on a Friday, none-the-less. Might well rename that "McGoldmine's" or "McSuretogetacold's".
5) Smoke a RG Dunn cigar: Way back before I was a pastor, a college buddy and I decided one night after class to go see a Reds game. This was back in the days when Riverfront Stadium was still standing, and you could buy tickets in the top six rows for $3. Well, it was in May we did this, and that night it was freezing. It was a less PC age where you could buy RG Dunn cigars from the concession stand for a quarter, and I don't remember whose idea it was that maybe a cigar and a cup of coffee would keep us warm, but like idiots, we bought 'em and lit 'em up. It was like chewing on one of Mr. T's old tennis shoes for the next three days. No amount of toothpaste could undo that horrible flavor. That's what you get when you buy a cigar for a quarter (it was overpriced) that was rolled in Lima, Ohio.
4) Run Down A Hill In My Underwear: Moral of this story is that if you are eight years old, wearing burnt orange corduroys about two sizes too large, when you mother tells you wear a belt that morning before you leave for school... do it.
3) Snort Chinese Hot Mustard Up Your Nose: Note to all 14 year old boys - It's not worth the 5 bucks your so-called friends will pay you to prove your manhood. Real (smart) men don't snort hot mustard.
2) Watch " The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey": This is a movie about a group of people living in the 14th century who have to tunnel through the earth to 20th century New Zealand, where they need to fashion a gold cross to take back to their village in order to save it from the bubonic plague.... and I did not make this up. Now, if go out and rent this, don't say I didn't warn you.
1) Drive in Chicago, at rush hour, in an ice storm: Yep, I'd rather do this than take Eli to the barbershop... hence the inevitable return of the "bowllet" and the chance one day to taunt him with pictures on his prom night. Can't beat that with a stick.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Where is your happy Christmas place? Where do you go to in your memory, when you idealize Christmas time? Who is in the snapshot in your mind?
For me, now and probably forever even as we form new Christmas traditions, when I think of Christmas I will always see a Christmas tree, covered with lights, tinsel, and ornaments, surrounded by a ridiculous number of presents in a living room on N. McDonel Street here in Lima. And in the recliner, in the middle back of the room facing a TV that was always on, was my great-grandfather, while my grandfather handed out presents to us all, safely warm and tucked away on a snowy Christmas eve. More than thirty years have passed since those days, which only grow more hazy in my mind, but that is the moment that every Christmas I will go back to, and feel waves of nostalgia washing over me.
Where is you happy Christmas place? Who is in the snapshot that you see in your mind?
By all accounts it won't matter that gas is $3 a gallon, or that flying will mean having to brave crowded airports stuffed with people anxious to get where they are going, in the paper yesterday it said that over 50 million Americans will traveling this weekend, virtually all of them, I suspect, to go spend Christmas with family or friends. 50 million people who know that if they only left a week sooner, or a couple of weeks later that they could save the hassle of dealing with 49,999,9999 other people all out in the road or air at the same time, but who do it anyway because they long to be in a happy Christmas place. A place where certain groups of people, by their presence and willingness to help create all the strange traditions that held in common, state unequivocally that their life just wouldn't be the same without you.
That's why, after all the clarion calls from a bunch of different corners of the culture, Christmas is as commercialized as its always been. Cut spending by 20% nationally, and this would still be the most important retail season of the year. There are hams to buy or cookies to bake. There are ugly sweaters contests that have to be won and a yearly ornament to mark the passage of time to be crafted. If a unit of money is what is exchanged for our time, energy, and effort at work, than it is a representation of the essence of who we are. And, for better or worse, in a culture so busy that time leaves little opportunity for the vast majority of us to actually get good at doing anything other than the skills necessary to make a living, how else can we symbolically exchange a piece of ourselves so that the ones we love will know that they matter to us?
I remember a Christmas, years ago, where largely because my wife decided that our family's "addiction" to materialism was getting out of hand (and also cause we didn't have a lot of money) my wife decided to make gifts for everybody. I can't remember exactly all of the gifts, but I remember that for the adult guys she made cologne from a formula she found in a magazine. The formula consisted mainly of about four or five different forms of grain alcohol. I remember when she was done, having bottled the 140 proof concoction in various bottles, that she invited me to dab on the end product. I declined, telling her that if I got pulled over by the police there'd be no way I could convince them that I hadn't been drinking..... heavily. I'm guessing a lot homemade cologne got sampled, and then in short order, was poured down the drain in hopes that it remove any slowly forming clogs that Christmas.
That is not to say that my wife didn't mean well, or that her gift wasn't from the heart, or that people didn't appreciate the trouble she went to on their behalf. She just isn't a real good men's cologne maker, hence the fact that Ralph Lauren hasn't coming knocking on our door looking for her super secret formula for "Hooch" cologne.
Most of us just don't have the time to become expert woodcarvers or potters, so in turn we end up buying a waterproof AM/FM radio (for my brother-in law one year), a chia pet (from my wife's grandmother another year), or a Jeff Gordon commemorative nylon wallet (let's just say a little bird told me I'm getting one this year) to try to communicate something deeper about how we feel. It's a cliche, but it's the thought that counts.. and that's really the truth. Whether good or bad, we are attempting to create together a happy Christmas place that says "you belong here". And maybe if we were a less materialistic culture and not so disconnected from one another, we'd be better at this. I mean, for three of the last four years I think I bought my sister-in law a Yankee Candle for Christmas, largely because I don't know her well enough to get a sense of what she would really like to have. They live their life, we live ours, largely disconnected. But all the same, I do know she likes candles, and I want her feel welcome in our family's strange little world.
So "bah humbug" me as another over-commercialized product of my environment. We bought our Prison Fellowship Angel Tree gifts... we know that Christmas isn't our birthday... give us a break.
Besides, in our own strange way, when we do this, try to create a Christmas happy place in our own somewhat deficient, strange little way, I think it is a manifestation of a yearning for something deeper.
Last week, in front of about 70 hearty souls who were itching to get out there an hit that "4-wheel drive" button, my sermon focused on the gift of the angels, which was the unencumbered presence of the living God, available for all. The angels are intermediaries who proclaim that they are no longer necessary because God isn't housed in some far away place, only available to the holiest of holy people.... he is Immanuel. With us. Proclaiming that his intention is bring God's good will and everlasting peace to all. Peace for us as individuals, reconciled with the living God. Peace for us collectively, as God is interested in justice for people in this life.
Which brings us to the subject of this week's biblical study: The shepherds.
Of all the people in the story, the characters I most identify with are the shepherds. I'd like to think I'm as noble as Joseph, or as dutiful as Mary, or as wise as the Kings. But really, I'm just a just another clueless shmoe, out there trying to do the best he can under the circumstances. That, to me, are the shepherds in a nutshell. They are on the job on what they think will be just another routine night of long stretches of boredom, punctuated either with the need to take care of the sheep or face whatever danger out there threatens their welfare: rustlers, animals, the stupidity of the sheep that wanders off clueless into a river or a brier patch or some such something that make it a difficult job for the shepherd that evening. More than likely these are just boys or teenagers, commissioned to take care of not just a bunch of livestock, but probably most of the family's wealth. I'm guessing they went to work without much more than the checklist of what they needed to do on their minds... much like you and me.
Yeah, that's right... I go to work thinking about the people who will need visited, the bills that need paid, the problems that need solved, and the next sermon that needs written. I never go thinking God will show up in a new and unexpected way. If I did, it wouldn't be unexpected.
So when God's emissaries, his mouthpieces, appear in the sky singing, filling the night with holy light and the beauty of their chorus, it's no wonder they start this gig by telling the shepherds to not be afraid. Who wouldn't be? Anyone in their right mind would be terrified of such otherworldly sights and sounds.
But the angels aren't there to proclaim God's might. They're there to tell the shepherds about God's son, and then they offer this extraordinary gift.... an invitation to go see him. Go into the Bethlehem, they say, and this is what you need to look for... a baby wrapped like all baby's are wrapped, with cloth, but lying in a manger. The King of all the universe lays in a goat's supper. You can't miss him.
And whaddya know... they go into Bethlehem, and there he was. Mary by his side.... Joseph watching over his young family... People twittering in and out.... probably all in the happiest corner of all Bethlehem, for mother and child are well, and the miracle of life has been experienced again.
It makes perfect sense to me that shepherds would tell everyone they knew about what they had seen. I'm sure some people thought they'd been drinking and still others probably wondered what their game was, but the shepherds don't really care. As soon as they leave that stable, they can't keep their mouths shut. Everybody has to hear the story again and again.
That's what ordinary, everyday people do. It's like when my brother was working part time in car detailing/repair shop in Toledo owned by Jimmy Jackson (of OSU and multiple NBA team fame), and having to call me the day he came in. Or all the times I've had to hear my wife tell me about the time she met Rob Lowe in high school. Or all the times my friend Merv tells people about his experience of delivering a van to hall-of-fame catcher, Gary Carter.
The shepherds are no different. This is the same thing, only, you know... bigger. So big that we tell the story, again and again, year after year, marveling again at what it must have been like on that first Christmas Eve when Heaven stretched into a shepherd's field, and God's living room into a stable, and regular Joes like the shepherds were invited. Just think... if you are regular joe or josephine out there, it could have been you.
Think how unusual that is. I had a history prof in college, B.H. Smith, who would start each and every semester by asking his students why people studied history. The proverbial answer, "So we won't repeat the same mistakes made in the past" would be uttered, and B.H. would always reply, "No. That's not it at all. Virtually every person in this room will never be important enough to make the same mistakes made in history. For us, history is about dates and dead people. That's all."
But in this case, when we tell the story of the shepherds just one more time, B.H. Smith is wrong. God invites ordinary schmoes to his son's birthday party. Summoned again and again to that first Christmas celebration complete with angels, sheep, shepherds, a manger in a stable, and a baby wrapped in cloths. A baby, the Son of God, not protected by some velvet rope or worldly or otherworldly armies meant to keep us ordinary people away. We are invited, all of us, and its OK to tell whoever we want, what it is we've seen.
It might sound corny, but you are in God's happy Christmas place. You have a place in the snapshot picture... near the manger, next to young woman exhausted from labor, with a peculiar smile on her face.
I think mainly on a primal level, that's we come together each and every year. We trying to recreate this moment, in our strange ways complete with trees, lights, wrapping paper, and sugar cookies. To offer that special invitation once again. We do it in all the fragility of our human mortality, seeking to create the experience, maybe holding onto moments that can't be recreated, because people or places in the snapshot aren't there any more. But what we really yearn for is that personal invitation by the Living God. To sit in his presence, and in the midst of the insanity of this world, know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that truly we are favored by him.
It is the gift of this invitation that the shepherds give us. An invitation to their happy Christmas place.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Your Son, Jesus came this season,
with the proclamation of angels
that He came bearing a message
of goodwill and peace to all, everywhere.
Certain days, though... certain moments,
we stare deeply into the mystery
that is life and death.
How, it seems, one day we can be "traying" on a snow covered hill,
(on "borrowed" trays)
blowing off steam as our first round of finals (EVER) drawing near,
and the next collectively mourning the loss
of a husband,
forces us to acknowledge both the unrelenting march of time
and the reality we are fragile, mortal beings.
Lift up we pray Amy, Nick and Katie.
Shower upon them your grace and love...
Grace that might only be apparent as time marches.
Love which is shared by good words, long hugs, shared tears,
and in the powerful embrace of your Holy Spirit.
For we know more understand the power of your love
anymore than we do disease and death.
With only our faith and belief as our foundation
let us put our faith in that love,
so we might someday understand the words of the Apostle Paul,
who tells us that nothing, not even death,
can separate us from this love we've found.
Love so great, that a life would be given,
so we, individually might know forgiveness,
and collectively realize restoration.
For the sting of death this day is sharp,
but in the light of eternity,
we trust that someday we will realize victory over it,
as we share the gift of Your paradise.
Father, we give thanks for the doctors, nurses,
technicians, and support staff at the various medical centers
where Dan's disease was fought tooth and nail.
Thank you for the gifts of healing
you have put in these wonderful people.
Give us the strength and the will
to continue to pray for and support all those
who seek new, effective ways to treat forms of cancer
that take from us, loved ones much too soon.
In all things,
let the bonds formed over Chuck fries,
and in innertube waterpolo games,
and late-night mud football,
and years after graduating,
catching up with emails, Christmas cards,
and the occasional phone call,
where we ask, "have you heard from (fill in the blank)?",
provide a bit of comfort in this time of trial.
For bonds formed, while stretched
need not be broken.
Let the warmth we still feel
for friendship offered so long ago
be felt especially this day,
as we grieve Dan's loss.
Dan Menster, died Wednesday at the age of 39. A 1990 graduate of Miami University, he married Amy (Corbin) Menster, who is one of "The Gang", a group of friends who hung around with one another while haunting Miami's campus in the early nineties. The group, of which I am proud to be a member, still maintains contact with one another until this day. Dan and Amy have two children. Donations in Dan's name can be made to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, Duke University Medical Center or to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
1) Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty): I think I've blogged about this a couple of times, but every time I hear "Baker Street" I am immediately a seven-year old kid at Elkland Pool, all over again. That summer, I'm pretty much sure my mom and I lived at Elkland Pool. I'd get there early for swim practice, and at least two or three days a week, stay until Dad would stop after work for a swim. And during that summer, the life guards at Elkland, who had access to a turntable (this was a pre-CD and cassette tape era) must have played this album, and this song, in particular, about 20 times a day. To do this day when I have dreams that involve the pool and my childhood, this song (or something from the Peter Frampton "Alive" album) is always in the background.
2) No Woman N0 Cry (Bob Marley): As a youth pastor you often find yourself cooped up with young people 24/7 for stretches as long as a week at a time. On one the first mission trip I ever led to South Carolina, I'm pretty sure Ellen Dukeman brought Bob Marley's "Legend" CD, and we listened to it most of the time we were on the road (15 hours, one way). Thus, until this day, I can't hear this song without remembering the old gray church van and the thousands of miles I logged in it. I can still smell the beef jerky the kids bought on the road at a gas station.
3) Hypnotize (The Notorious BIG): The prof who led our Beeson class trip to London thought it would be a good idea, after being awake for 20 some-odd hours traveling from Lexington to Heathrow, to keep us awake during the daylight hours on the first day we arrived in London to get us on local time. To do this, we took a combination bus and walking tour of the city. We spent at least two hours riding around on the bus, and since I hadn't slept well the night before we left, I think I'd had like 4 hours of sleep in two+ days. Really only wanting a bathroom and a bed, as we rode on the bus, I turned on my MP3 player, only to hear this song come blasting out of the headphones. There's nothing quite like riding through Trafalgar Square while listen to rap music by a guy from Brooklyn, on no sleep. I couldn't decide if I was in London, New York, or if I was actually still asleep in Wilmore. Even now the entire experience is still surreal.
4) Doctor, Doctor (The Thompson Twins): For a stretch during my junior year of high school (during basketball season), I spent a great deal of my free time on the weekends hanging out with two friends, Tina Brookman and Todd Bolander, driving around in my car looking for innocent forms of trouble. We moved campaign signs, dragged leaf bags, TP'ed houses, and a bunch of other stupid stuff you do when you are a teenager, have a few bucks, and way too much freedom. The time, really, seems so innocent, that it still makes me smile. Of course, Tina ended up falling for Todd, who strung her along long after the three of us were hanging out, and whole thing ended up turning out badly for the two of them... but those are their memories, not mine. Why "Doctor, Doctor"? I'm sure it was playing on the cassette player in the dash of my car (a "Targa" that I purchased for 50 bucks out at Rex Electronics on layaway.... no other statement could make me feel older). Anyhow, Tina is married and doing well in Columbus (we see her brother and his wife on a regular basis) and I have no idea what happened to Todd (although I hear rumors). Just a really simple, beautiful moment in my life.
5) Electric Kingdom (The Professors of Funk): I grew up in the west end of the city of Lima, and until my Sophomore year of high school played organized team sports for whatever school I was attending at the time. By my Junior year, it was apparent that what little God-given talent wasn't going to take me very far, and quite frankly most of our games at Lima Senior were scheduled in Cincinnati (since during that era schools in the area were too small to schedule) which required extended trips on school buses... which I detested. But in junior high school, I still had aspirations to play basketball long term, so most days you'd find me at someone's house playing a pickup game, or 21, with some friends. Always a boombox would be playing rap music, as most of the guys we played with were black, and in those days Hip Hop largely was never heard on the radio. So, these guys would record songs from 107.7 (WDAO) in Dayton, and we'd listen to them while we played.
This was really the first time in my life that I became aware of how powerfully racism permeates our collective consciousness. You see, it didn't seem all that strange to me that I like rap or that the guys who were my friends were black. That was just my life. But when our team would travel to places like Wapak, Elida (which was much more homogeneous then), Shawnee (same for Shawnee), or even further away from the city in small podunk town, like Delphos, I became powerfully aware that in certain parts of our fair community, certain people were not welcome... and by being associated with those people, that venom ended centered on you also.
Never do I remember this demonstrated more powerfully than during a game we played when I was in the eighth grade at Delphos St. Johns. Delphos, for those who don't live in this area, is a little town just west of Lima that is a model for most of the little towns in the Northwest part of the state. It's working class, lilly white, and almost entirely made up of Roman Catholics who are probably all related back a few generations. I remember the unease in that gym that day when Gary Copeland set up his boombox before the game, and out came "Electric Kingdom" while we did our warmups. What followed was the most poorly called game I've ever played in, which involved four guys on our team fouling out by the start of the fourth quarter... all of us white. The highlight of the game for me was getting called for a foul on the other side of gym from where I standing. Until then, I never understood the hostility and uncertainty my friends lived with daily... and even now, I'm sure I still don't.
6) Piano Man (Billy Joel): Thursday nights, at Saloon, in Oxford, Ohio, I must have sung this song and "Wheel In the Sky" by Journey about a thousand times with a number of good friends. Just remember... I wasn't always a pastor.
7) Lo How A Rose Ere' Blooming (any version): Even though Aimee and I chose Louis Armstrong's "It's A Wonderful World" as our wedding song, truly this tune is OUR song. Why? Well, way back in high school, during my senior year, I was the student director of the choir. At that time in my life, I loved music, and was even considering a career as a music teacher. The director, Mr. Charles Brown (still the coolest guy in education), picked this song as one of the ones I would direct during the "Holiday in Harmony" concert. Aimee, a sophomore at the time, was the accompanist to the choir, and we had to work on the song together to make sure we had the timing and dynamics right. That's pretty much the point we started becoming interested in one another... and now seventeen years of marriage and three (almost four) kids later, I still have this song to thank for helping turn me into a happily married man.
8) Fool For The City (Foghat): The father of my childhood best friend, Jason Reeves, owned a killer stereo system which he kept in the rec room they added onto their house when we were wee tykes. He also loved music, and bought all the best stuff the 70's had to offer, so as a five, six year old kid, I used to play with my friend listening to Fleetwood Mac, Boston, The Doobie Brothers, Blue Oyster Cult, and Foghat. Jason and I liked the album because the cover had a guy fishing in a manhole in the middle of the city on it. Whaddya want... I was five. Anyhow, I can still see us wrestling, throwing a football ball, or some such other something we weren't allowed to do inside while this song blared out of that awesome stereo. Once again, a beautiful memory of a much more innocent time.
9) Burning for You (Blue Oyster Cult): Spent my 21st birthday at Bogarts in Cincinnati seeing some awful band called Circus of Power open for the legendary Blue Oyster Cult. I think most of my college friends thought I latched on to BOC largely because our friend, Steve Wheeler, was really into the band. But if you read number 8 on this list, you'll know that not only did I grow up listening to BOC in Jason's rec room, but also owned the Mirrors 8-track tape. In any event, these guys looked old back in 1990, so its hard to believe there are still original members of the band that are still touring (and if their website is correct, will be into 2008). I think we were not just the only college students there that night, but I'm pretty sure we were the only people who didn't show up to the show on a motorcycle (and it was in February... that BOC crowd is hardcore). Great show. Maybe I'll have to ride down on 1200cc's of pure power to Cincinnati and catch them in August in full leather regalia. I'll be a poseur no more.
10) Bananaphone (Raffi): When we lived in Goshen I found this Volkswagen Eurovan that I fell immediately in love with. I bought it as a vehicle for myself to drive, but after swearing she'd never drive a minivan, Aimee drove the Eurovan once and was hooked. Someone gave us, or maybe we bought, a Raffi cassette tape for Max, which we kept out in the van. I just remember everytime we got into it, my little baby boy would start saying, "Song? Song?", and we'd have to put in Bananaphone to keep him happy. So this can work two ways... I can hear the song, or see a Eurovan, and remember little Max in his car seat saying "Song? Song?". I suppose that memory will grow sweeter as he gets older, and starts listening to the crap they now call popular music....
oh, did I just write that down? Guess I'm showing my age.
Monday, December 17, 2007
The Browns-Bills game yesterday is the reason why the Cleveland Browns, despite getting hosed by Art Modell and the NFL, have one of the most loyal fan bases in the world. Snow covered field... rabid fans going crazy on play... snow and wind so bad that at times you couldn't see the play on TV.... guys with leaf blowers trying to keep the sidelines clear... players so elated after the game they were making snow angels to the delight of the crowds... and all for a game that actually has playoff implications. Nothing like football in six inches of snow, a driving wind, and 60,000 screaming fans cheering on a disgraced RB and a waived QB (kind of lost treasure given all the domes out there right now). A new generation of Browns fans were born yesterday in Cleveland... I guarantee it.
2) Messed up yesterday by not calling off the 11am service. Not that the service wasn't a good one... it was. But it was good because all the musicians who were scheduled to be there trudged out into the snow, while knowing better.
Folks who know me know I hate canceling anything. Cancellations break routines, and when you spent so many years as a youth pastor working to establish routines for teenagers, you kind of develop this aversion to giving people any excuse to take you out of their routine. Yesterday was a weird one, though. Given the weather report, I canceled the 9am service on Saturday afternoon, knowing full well that the threat of bad weather would empty that service out. But if you live in the Midwest long enough, you'll know the weather people are right about 50% of the time, so generally I like to wait until Sunday morning to decide what to do about the 11am. I waited, came over to the church at 8 and 9am, and thought we'd be OK. The lot was cleared, plows were out getting the streets clean, and snow was coming down, but not all that hard. Unfortunately, shortly after 9am, the snow really started to pick up, and by 10am we had a full-blown blizzard on our hands. Unfortunately, none of the local radio or TV stations seemed have live people working at them Sunday morning (a pox on computer automation) so even if I wanted to cancel, I had no way to contact people.
So, we worshiped, all had a good time, and Arby's ended up busy after the service (I mean, we were out.... why cook?). Mostly we had people with 4-wheel drive who rarely have a reason to use it out doing a little joy-riding (my Dad was particularly smitten with the traction he got in their new Mercury Mariner Hybrid, and thus spent the rest of the day looking for excuses to go drive), and other folks who just like going to church.. and a few people scheduled to be there who didn't want to let down their friends, but would have been happy to strangle their pastor. Thanks to all who made it. I promise to not be so "lumberjack tough" in the future.
3) It was snowing and blowing all afternoon, by the early evening it actually was pretty nice outside, so the boys and I decided to make a snow cave inside the big pile of snow John Thomas' plow (thank you John!) left at the end of my driveway. It's pretty cool (I'll put a few pictures up later... it was dark last night by the time we stopped for the day). Eli, however, does not share the same fondness for snow that his brothers do (pretty typical of all the boys when they were younger). Aimee bundled him up in a cute snowsuit (complete with a coat so bulky his arms stuck out at 45 degree angles from his body... a la "The Christmas Story) and mittens, but outside of tasting a few flakes, he had no use for snow. 20 minutes he was back inside playing with his grandpa (who ended up at our house while joyriding in the Mariner) in our warm, snow-free basement. The kids are out of school today, so we'll most likely be making a trip to the Neil Armstrong Museum to go sledding later this afternoon. Ah... snow days.
4) Which leads me to this rant... when we moved to Lima back in 1980, my parents made the fateful decision of buying a house in the city, as opposed to one of numerous suburbs. Back in those days, before the state gave the Lima City Schools the funds to replace all but two of their buildings, the nine elementary schools were scattered as such that they were virtually within walking distance of all the students. Of course, if you were in junior high or high school, if you had no ride, you just had to trudge the couple of miles or so through the ice and snow (uphill, both ways) and deal with it. Since the city schools had no buses (except short ones for developmentally challenged students), they rarely, if ever closed. That meant that every morning when it snowed, while all the kids in the burbs and rural areas got delays or cancellations, as a city school kid, you'd hear all those other school districts taking pity on their students and teachers, only to hear Tom Francis at WIMA-AM say, "and, as always, the Lima City Schools are on time, and in session".
I just want to say that for the first five years of my elementary school life, I did ride a school bus to Shoals Elementary School in suburban Charleston, West Virginia, and we didn't get enough snow to amount to too many school days (excluding the blizzard of '78) being canceled. And we never got fog delays... despite living in an extended valley where you had fog just about every day and you drove on roads with endless blind curves.
Fog delays.... give me a break.
Now, the City Schools have buses, and the "report card" they get from the state measures attendance (among other things), so those kids get out like everyone else. They no longer wear the same badge of both honor (cause we were tougher than those pansies out in the burbs) and shame (cause we have gladly traded our toughness for days off spent sledding at Faurot Park) like we did. They won't have to carry this bitterness I, and so many of my classmates, carry every time we hear of another school delaying or canceling school.
"...and of course, the Lima City Schools are on time, and in session." Poppycock.
5) Bad news out of the United Methodist Information Service... apparently the cost of next year's General Conference - the once-every-four-year all church meeting that sets the general rules for the church - is going to run more than a million dollars above the amount budgeted for it. Why, you ask? Well, back in 1968 when we first merged the ME and EUB denominations to create United Methodism, fewer than 12% of the delegates, attending that conference came from outside of the U.S.A. You see, there are many Methodist denominations, but we aren't all unified under one banner. Membership in these denominations, while largely geographical, for historic reasons often looks like a patchwork quilt across the globe. Thus, we have UM churches located in Africa, Asia, and Central America.
Now, as the American wing of the UMC hurdles toward obscurity and decline, these overseas branches of the tree are growing. Thus, in 2008, 40% of all delegates at General Conference are coming from overseas. Since the travel and lodging cost of every delegate is subsidized by the denomination, this has created a fiscal crisis for the event scheduled to take place in Fort Worth later this spring. There is talk about about eliminating an overall percentage of all the delegates to cut down on the cost, and a wider range of discussion on how in the future this event will have to change as the financial backbone of the church, the UMC in the USA, continues to struggle with all kinds of costs as we face the loss of a generation of people, the WWI generation, that have foundation of the church for a good many years.
6) But the bigger issue is the dawning realization that the decline of the UMC, from more than 12 million members in 1968, to about 7.9 million in 2007, is much more rapid in the US than what we have realized. If 40% of all the 1000 delegates, which are apportioned by membership across all the conferences are now coming from outside the US, then the decline of the UMC in the US has been much more rapid and dramatic than we have been led to believe. The great myth in the UMC for as long as I've been involved in it has been that the membership in 1968 was inflated, filled with millions of inactive members on church rolls for a variety of reasons (larger rolls meant greater prestige for the church and pastor, familial connects, etc...). As our membership continued to decline over the next forty years, we were assured by conference officials that at some point, there would be a "bottoming out" as churches pared their rolls to more accurately reflect reality. Since we've been holding steady at around 8 million for awhile now, many experts have been hailing that number as our "bottoming out" point.
But what the 2008 General Conference fiscal crisis highlights is that the rapid decline of the past forty years here in the US hasn't bottomed out. It continues, unabated. For if a million of our members lived outside the US in 1968, now 2.8 million do. That means that about 10.7 million members lived in the US in 1968, and now in 2008 only about 4.2 million live in the US with no bottom number in sight. Considering that the population of the US has grown by about 100 million people since 1970, whatever panic bells weren't ringing among UM leaders ought to be ringing now. If your nation grew by a third, while your membership declined by more than half and aged markedly, you've got a serious problem.
A very serious problem, indeed.
7) The first and foremost of the plethora of issues we'll need to face is how in the world we take advantage of the growth happening overseas as the resources in the US continue to be, at best, growing at a flat rate (and probably, adjusted for inflation, this would be an optimistic deduction). When I met with Sam Dixon, Director of UMCOR, last July, one of the things he said, that shocked me, is that we are currently starting and building new churches at a record pace... it's just we're doing it in places like Thailand.
Now, who knew we were building hundreds of churches in Thailand?
Stories like this need to be shared with rank and file UM's, and mission opportunities arranged to these place, post haste! If the international wing of the church is taking off, UM's need to hear and know about it. Considering our general agencies and annual conferences are better financed and (theoretically) organized than other major denominations, we should be flush with stories happening "over there". There should be ample testimonies about the fruit from connections that churches here in the US have made with international partners. The energy from this would be vital for churches who are struggling to grapple with the benefits of remaining a UM, when the costs to the local church are higher than just about any other denomination.
Churches like ours would be a whole lot more excited about this if we were connected with churches overseas growing by leaps and bounds. I mean, it's conceivable that the UMC could begin growing for the first time within the next decade, it's just that all the growth would be coming outside of our nation's borders. Why not use that as fuel to ignite local congregations again about the Methodist connection? Who is telling this story, and where are the plethora of opportunities for American UM's to be connected all of this great stuff?
8) Brother Esq and I can't decide on a new nickname for new Michigan coach, Rich Rodriguez. Since he's reportedly signing for (ahem) $4 million per year, the media has dubbed him "Rich Rod" or "Dollar Rod".
As an aside, I remember during all the Maurice Clarett hoopla, how a friend of mine, who is the chaplain of the Wesley Foundation at UofM, got on his high horse a couple of years ago to talk about how "principled" Lloyd Carr was, while OSU ran its program like every money-crazed university in the country. Of course, he conveniently forgot that virtually every game the Fab Five won had to be forfeited because it was the highest paid NCAA basketball team in history... but I digress.
Welcome to the new world, Eric Stone! Hope you like your new multi-million dollar coach with a history of driving up his salary and recruiting player of questionable academic ability.
Anyhow, after much discussion, we've decided that either "Lloyd Rodriguez" or "Rrich Carr" would be a better choice. Either way, you can bet the Mountaineers will be sending a ton of film to Columbus by the New Year, and the Bucks defense is about to get a whole lot better defending against the spread offense.
"Beware the Sweater Vest!"
9) By the way, what's my prediction for the BCS Championship Game? 43-41 OSU, in triple OT just to add a little salt into Les Miles' wound.
10) Finally, in a strange, wonderful turn of events, I was invited to become a "Facebook Friend" of Dr. Paul Chilcote, who is currently a professor of biblical studies at Duke Theological Seminary. Dr. Chilcote, many years ago, taught Wesleyan Studies at Methodist Theological School. I took every class from him I could before he vamoosed to become the first Dean at Asbury Theological Seminary's Orlando campus (or as we called it at the time, "Asbury Disney". He relayed the good news that he will be returning to Ohio this summer to teach at Ashland Theological School (I'd love to bring him to Shawnee to speak... stay tuned).
In any event, this might be the only time a world-renowned biblical scholar invites me to be a friend of any kind... so I'll just soak it in. Ahhhhh...... that's some good stuff.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
The appearance of angels in the Christmas story is interesting to me because in each case we have an interaction between the living God and humanity through an intermediary. A middle man. A messenger, or messengers, who are created by and from God... but not God.
And the angels all proclaim the same thing... that the one who will make the Lord's will complete on earth is coming and be present with humanity. One who is created by and from God.... as well as being God himself. One who will need no intermediary. No messengers. For he will use his own intellect, heart, and tongue to do his own work.
Bringing peace and goodwill.
I blogged about something interesting to me last week. It was a news story about a 92 year old woman who was accosted in a WalMart by a guy who wanted to take her money. He took a gun, pointed it at her, and demanded all her cash. But the woman refused to hand it over, not once, but three times she told the man she would not do what he wanted. And, then, the woman said something very peculiar. Something that must have sounded so dramatic, that the robber, stunned, stopped what he was doing.
The woman said, "As you quickly as you kill me, I'll go to heaven, and you'll go to hell."
Now maybe some people out there might be offended by this. I mean, most Christians are taught that a person goes to hell because they haven't asked Jesus into their heart. They haven't said the sinner's prayer. They haven't intellectually assented to choose Christ. Which isn't where this woman is coming from at all. She is connecting the man's actions to a sense of God's justice. To her, if a person would be so brazen to rob a weak, helpless, woman in broad daylight, there can be no possible way he truly knows Jesus. She judges the man by his actions, which is something, quite frankly, most of us have been taught God doesn't do because none of us are holy enough to judged worthy to be in God's eternal presence. That only happens if we ask for forgiveness from Christ for our sins. To ask him to take our place on that cross. To accept God's wrath that should have been ours. We are saved by grace... the grace of God.
But in this moment, that's not what this woman is preaching. Oh, maybe that's what she's saying for herself. She's asked Jesus into heart, been active in a church all her life, and reads her Bible every day. She has not only asked for forgiveness, but taken seriously the commitment she made. She didn't leave her promise to Jesus at the alter in some prayer, but then turned away, repented of her sin, to live differently. And her life, at least in her own mind, has proved this out. She truly has been saved.
But the robber... well, she never asks him if he went to a revival, or church camp, or an Emmaus walk, or if he laid his hand on the TV while Pat Robertson prayed. He's about to sin, and the woman believes in God's justice, so she tells him he follows through on this thing here... if he follows through on this thing, he's going to be condemned to an eternity in Hell.
An... eternity... in... Hell.
I don't talk about Hell much, largely because I think there are people out there who have talked, and will continue to talk, about it enough for the both of us. But that's not because I don't believe in it. I do. This liberal, hippy, United Methodist pastor believes in Hell. The reality of judgment. The sense that God has a will when it comes to how we live our life together, and that we need to take His will seriously.
And what is his will? Ask the prophets. They'll tell you what the Lord requires of you: To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
I mean I hear the argument that a God who is truly good would never throw a person into a lake of burning fire for all eternity because the punishment, it seems, far outweighs the crime.
But I hear that, and I wonder.... doesn't God care about the life people are living now? Doesn't he care about the pain and misery inflicted by one group of folks on another group of folks? Doesn't he care about our priorities?
What did the angels say? Peace and goodwill to all people. Wouldn't a God who loves justice want to do something when his justice is perverted, or ignored?
I don't doubt we're saved by grace, but the Bible is clear... we are judged by our works. And our God finds it reprehensible that an elderly widow would get shot and killed for her pocketbook.
(All elderly widows in the house, and all who love them, say "Amen").
But here's the other thing about this story about this 92 year old woman in the Dyersville, Tennesee WalMart parking lot... as soon as she realizes that she has this guy's attention, she encourages him to pray, and she assures him that if he does pray he'll be heard because Jesus is in the car with them, right now. Another startling statement. Jesus is present here with us. The robber is so surprised the he began looking in the backseat of the car, I suspect for a guy with long hair, holes in this hands, who was wearing a robe.
He's not there... not in the flesh, anyway but for the woman, Jesus is powerfully real none-the-less. His presence has not only shaped her behavior, but given meaning to her prayer and study, as well as strengthened her, even in times of great peril... like being robbed and threatened with death.
Here's the thing... in all of history, the threat of God's condemnation has been levied by religious and political icons in their own name for their own purposes. Egyptian Pharaohs were promised paradise, slowly others were told they could come along, if only they did the Pharaoh's bidding. The all-powerful ruler in whatever dynasty you want to bring up, sees cosmic wrath in terms of what has happened to his enemies, and as a promise as to what will happen to anyone who stands against him.
And you can be certain that his concern wasn't with the welfare of elderly widows.
But the angels tell us the truth. The baby who is coming, is coming to bring peace and good will to ALL, and we get an idea of what this means when Mary sings, if you remember from a couple of weeks ago, that the Lord has... performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
This is a God who cares about justice, in this life. A God who cares about the choices we make, or don't make. A God hears the cries of those in need, and is angered when his children are the root of those tears. But God's son will not, as the Pharisees do, use Hell to bully people into adopting his agenda. God's son won't use the threat of retribution, as the Romans, to scare people into become passive and docile, doing what he asks so that he might become more powerful, or rich, or famous, or more dominant.
Hell is promised for those who believe in the power of their own mystique and ability to force their intentions on others, while not caring about peace and good will for all people.
And the most amazing thing about the angels message, which is told again by this woman in this car to this robber, is the way God's son is going to teach us how to live God's way... how to love justice, offer mercy, and walk humbly knowing God is God and we are not, is to do it personally. One on one. Not through groups projects, or meetings, or demonstrations, or grand plans for grand schemes for changing the world... those will be a part of God's process, you can be sure. But that's not where it will begin.
No. It will happen one heart at a time. Hearts set on fire by God being real, caring about our tears, our fears, our weaknesses, the way we hurt others. A God with no middle men or messengers, but rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, his own intellect, his own tongue. He will teach us peace, and how to bring good will.
Friday, December 14, 2007
Or my favorite pair of blue Keds?
When did I go from being a player, to a coach?
When did I quit riding the school bus,
or receive notes that read,
"If you like me, check this box"?
When did getting pizza stop being a big deal?
When did I quit waking up early on Saturday
to watch cartoons?
Whatever happened to my Rax crew-member
Where is my Big Wheel?
Where is my "Thriller" cassette?
Where is Keven Beer living now?
Why did I stop worrying about what college I was going to attend?
Why did I give up trying to become a pilot?
Why do I no longer play the trombone?
The days of looking good in a pair of Calvin Klines
and a shirt with an alligator on it are over.
The days of going to Kewpee to shoot the bull with
the guys after YF are over.
The days of playing kickball on the old railroad tracks
until Mom called me home for dinner are over.
Time marches on.
My mind wanders....
to swimming and movies at Eric's condo
to the night our tuba player dotted the "M" in "Script Lima"
to late nights driving around in a Buick
to a rainy night on Western Campus
to sheet pizzas at Boop's house
to bringing home pizza bread on my 10-speed
to eating lunch with the rest of 9-16
to playing rundown at Little Watt Powell Park
to the smell of popcorn at the drive-in
to climbing on the rocks after church
to games of "Shark" at Elkland Pool
to picking black cherries while my great-grandfather watched
to the little moments
that didn't seem to matter much
like resting my head on my father's chest
reading to my brother "The Pokey Little Puppy"
getting pummeled by Unc in a pillow fight
Mr. Kelly's homemade peach ice cream
getting picked first
moments that have made a life rich
moments that harder to remember
moments that will never be reclaimed
Time marches on.
I wonder how much time I have left.
Will I see my youngest child graduate from college?
Will I become the old guy at the district pastor's meeting?
Will I tell stories that sound too crazy to my grandchildren?
"Back in my day, all cars ran on gasoline, and when I was young
I paid 75 cents for a gallon of gas"
"Grampa, you're crazy... cars don't run on gas."
Will I become the old man everyone whispers about at Christmas?
"He's not looking so good. He hasn't said one word all evening.
He barely touched his dinner. He'll want to get back to the nursing home soon."
Will I, in so much pain, beaten down by old age, one day see death
not as the enemy but as a friend?
I have no idea.
But I'll find out.
Time marches on.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
1) My name is Bryan Bucher
2) I live in a suburb of Lima, Ohio called Shawnee.
3) I am the senior pastor of the Shawnee United Methodist Church
4) I have been married more than 17 years to the former Aimee Allen.
5) We are high school sweethearts, and a Miami Merger
6) We have three sons
7) Max is eight years old
8) Xavier is five years old
9) Eli is two years old
10) We have another baby on the way (also a boy, as per the suggestion of the ultrasound technician)
11) I was born in Columbus, Ohio.
12) We moved to Charleston, West Virginia when I was very little, and lived there about 8 years.
13) My childhood best friend, Jason Reeves, lives on land given to his family by George Washington
14) We moved to Lima, Ohio when I was ten years old (and my parents still live in the same house on Spring Street).
15) I am a Roosevelt Ram, West Titan, and Lima Senior Spartan
16) I haven't gotten any taller the past 20 years, but I have gotten wider.
17) My senior year of high school I was both the student director of the Junior/Senior Choir and student director of the Pep Band
18) I made the Pep Band play "Rubber Ducky" every game, which they hated.
19) The Varsity Basketball team my senior year was so bad, that by mid-season, instead of playing "Eye of the Tiger" when the team came out, I had the band play "Mission Impossible" (the coach was none too happy... he was fired next year though, which turned out to be a good move for the program).
20) I played sports (basketball, baseball) early in high school but stopped my junior year because I no longer enjoyed playing.
21) I took Aimee to see "Lady and the Tramp" on our first date.
22) I had her home two hours early because her father pointed a gun at me before we left, and told me he didn't know what he'd do if anything happened to his youngest daughter.
23) I have a healthy respect, and a little fear, for my father-in-law.
24) I attended Miami (Ohio) University, which was a university before Florida was a state.
25) While there, our football team had the longest non-winning streak in the country over a two year period.
25) In two Ed Psych classes I sat next Milt Stegall, who played for Miami's football team, and who now holds the record for scoring more touchdowns than anyone else in Canadian Football History.
26) The friends I made my freshman year in Stanton, were largely the same friends I hung around with my senior year.
27) I earned a degree in Secondary Education (Social Studies).
28) I student taught at Princeton (Cincinnati) Middle School and National Trail (Preble County) High School.
29) I am one Philosophy class and one year of Latin away from degrees in History, Political Geography, and Political Science (someday I will finish those degrees).
30) Once when I student taught at a high school in Preble County, Ohio, the students submitted a petition to the principle telling him I was too mean and that I should never be invited to return.
31) He called and asked me sub every day for the next three weeks.
32) Aimee and I were married when I was a senior, and she was a sophomore in college.
32) Our first home was a mobile home we purchased for $7000 in the Ray Day Mobile Home Park, Oxford, Ohio.
33) On the night I went to go talk to the owners about buying their mobile home, I was an hour late to the meeting because a 16 year old girl, who caught her 20-something boyfriend cheating on her, proceeded to run over him with her car. I found him laying in same street of my eventual home. While his friends and families were busy screaming for vengeance, I had to beg someone to bring the guy a blanket so he wouldn't go into shock, and for them to call the paramedics. Fortunately he ended up surviving the whole ordeal.
34) We bought the trailer anyway... cause love is blind and stupid.
35) My friend Steve Wheeler lived with us for a few months in order to work as a manager at a dining hall while saving money to become a missionary to Hungary.
36) I used to hustle guys on Miami's campus in games of HORSE for money, which I used exclusively to buy food.
37) Before I got married, my college roommate told me that by getting married and moving into a trailer before I completed my degree, I was ruining my life.
38) He met his future wife at our wedding, and one year later was married, and living in a trailer, while attending medical school (now how could I make that up?).
39) In college I wanted to be a teacher or lawyer. I thought I'd try teaching first, while my wife finished her degree at Miami.
40) During my student teaching, in order to make a little extra money, I took a job as a youth director at the Shawnee United Methodist Church.
41) I did it because I only had to be at church one day a week, and it paid $4k for the school year.
42) My brother, who is twelve years young than I am, ended up getting involved in the youth group, thus also making me his pastor.
43) My supervising pastor, Barry Burns, suggested I apply to seminary.
44) I applied to two in order to appease him: United Theological Seminary (Dayton) and Methodist Theological School In Ohio(Greater Columbus)
45) As I prayed about this, I told God I'd only go to seminary if I didn't have to borrow any money to cover expenses (because I am a jerk)
45) MTSO offered me a one-year non-renewable, full ride scholarship.
46) I turned it down, and told them to call me if they were willing to give me a full-ride for all three years.
47) One month later, they did because a school teacher named Helen Dornette gave them $60,000 dollars.
48) I started seminary in 1992, and sent Ms. Dornette three dozen white roses when I graduated in 1995.
49) The scholarship, however didn't include housing, so for part of my third year, I slept two or three nights a week in my car on the seminary's campus.
50) My friend Paul Rebelo, offered to let me stay at his house, a parsonage for the Ostrander United Methodist Church, for free the remainder of the year.
51) We have talked on the phone about once a week, every week, since 1995.
52) When my wife is pregnant, I tend to make a lot of omelets. Is that weird?
53) While I went to seminary, my wife earned a BS in Music Ed from Miami University, and a Masters degree in Music Ed from THE Ohio State University.
54) We had to live apart for two years while we both finished degrees... she in Oxford and I in Delaware, Ohio. We saw one another on weekends in Lima.
55) Before we had kids we ate out a lot and went to see a lot of movies.
56) Now we don't.
57) I once hiked more than 30 miles in the Chugiak National Forest, which is just outside of Anchorage, Alaska.
58) Aimee was hired as the band director at Toledo Central Catholic High School less than a week after we moved to Toledo from Lima in 1997.
59) The 18 months we spent in Toledo were 18 of the most miserable months of my life.
60) Aimee and I worked so much we never saw one another.
61) I did, though, learn how to play the bass guitar while I lived there.
62) One year into living in Toledo, we found out we were pregnant with our first son.
63) Shortly thereafter, I applied for a job with the conference ministry of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference.
64) I got the job, and a $15,000 raise. We moved to Bloomington, Illinois in December of 1998. Aimee was eight months pregnant, and we didn't know a soul in the entire conference (which was 2/3rds of the state of Illinois).
65) Our family has two pets, Lucy (dog), and Trixie (cat, who has been with us since we were married).
66) We attended a church in Bloomington who was led by a pastor named (no joke) Rob Roy, who liked to illustrate points in his sermon by playing snippets to various Christian rock songs on a CD player. We liked him immediately.
67) I started an intern program for college students thinking about going into ministry in 1999. It's my lasting contribution to the IGRAC.
68) I drove more than 50,000 miles in my year in conference ministry... mostly in a diesel Volkswagen Beetle.
69) I have owned more than 30 cars in my life (Buick Skylark, Ford Tempo, Plymouth Horizon, Pontiac 6000, Dodge Raider, Honda CRX, Volkswagen SuperBeetle Convertable, Mazda Protege, Chevy Nova, Chevy Surburban, Toyota Corolla Wagon, Nissan 280 Z, Honda Del Sol, Toyota 4-Runner, Jeep Wagoneer, Nissan Maxima, Volkswagen Beetle, Volkswagen Eurovan, Subaru Legacy Wagon #1, Subaru Legacy Wagon #2, Toyota Pick-Up #1, Volvo 240, Honda Odyssey, Mazda MPV, Chevy Astro, Kia Sedona, and a Mercury Cougar are the ones I can remember off the top of my head)
70) The car I had the longest? The Ford Tempo... which was a total lemon.
71) We moved to Goshen in 1999, and lived there for five years.
72) We made a lot of good friends on Yorktown Drive, the greatest neighborhood in the world, whom we keep in touch with even until this day.
73) I am partial to Coca-Cola flavored Slurpees.
74) Serving at Goshen First was the greatest professional experience of my life, largely thanks to the mentoring I received from it's senior pastor, Dick Lyndon.
75) I served as the Ski Club adviser at Goshen Middle School for 2 years. Both years more than 100 kids signed up to go skiing at the Swiss Valley Ski Resort in Jones, Michigan, which is hard to believe for those of us who have actually skied there.
76) In November 2003, the senior pastor at Shawnee United Methodist Church, where I started my ministerial career, asked me to return in order to eventually succeed him as the senior pastor.
76) Dick Lyndon died unexpectedly in January 2004. I presided over his funeral.
77) It was both an honor, and personally very hard.
78) I accepted Shawnee's offer, and moved back to Lima in June 2004.
79) Upon the suggestion of my senior pastor, church lay-leaders, and district superintendent, I started a Doctorate of Ministry degree in 2006.
80) When they first suggested this, it kinda ticked me off.
81) In retrospect, though, it turned out to be a great gift.
82) The Beeson Program at Asbury enabled me to meets some of the leading scholars and pastoral leaders in the world.
83) They also serve snacks every day in the snack room outside of our carrels.
84) I am one of the last 15 or 16 fans of the NBA left in the country.
85) It took me more than two years to read "Renovation of the Heart" by Dallas Willard because it took my share group that long to work through the book.
86) I wrote a blog about speaking in tongues that was the all the rage in London for about three days.
87) I enjoy Brian McLaren's books, but wonder if he isn't just re-warmed over 60's mainline denominational liberalism.
88) I like eating very spicy, hot food, particularly Kung Pao Chicken.
90) I am happily addicted to coffee.
91) I attended the very last Cleveland Browns game in the old Cleveland Stadium before Art Modell slunk off to Baltimore.
92) 35 teenagers, who I had led on a weekend mission experience serving children at the Hough Salvation Army Center on Cleveland's gritty east side, were with me at the game.
93) There was a guy dressed as a big walking phallus with the sign that said, "I'm Art Modell" sitting two rows behind us.
94) Somebody else detached the bench we were sitting on, cut it up into pieces, and hauled it out in gym bags. We had no place to sit for the entire 4th quarter.
95) I guess I wasn't your ordinary youth pastor.
96) I made Mike Deranek, a young man from Goshen, Indiana, close our youth group in prayer approximately 105 times over a five year period.
97) I once wrote a sermon series called, "Real Good Sex" that tuned out not to be all that good.
98) I also once appeared on the Bill Belichick Show when he was the coach of the Browns (my friend Wayne Kintz is my witness).
99) I once won an award for raising more money than any other kid in Kanawha County, West Virginia in a read-a-thon benefiting multiple sclerosis.
100) My young brother, Brother Esq, is the two-time repeating champion of our Fantasy League
101) His reign ends this year.
Friday, December 07, 2007
Happened across this story last night...
Woman, 92, makes robber cry
If you didn't bother to hit the link, this 92 year old woman was accosted by a man in a WalMart parking lot. The man asked for money at gunpoint, but after refusing to give him the money three times, the woman said something very unexpected in return:
"You know as quick as you kill me, I'll go to Heaven, and you'll go to Hell."
The unexpected response opened up the opportunity for a conversation and the two sat in the woman's car to talk. The woman encouraged the man to ask Jesus for forgiveness and then encouraged him to pray. The robber apparently began to cry on the spot, and after thanking the woman (who in turn gave him all the money she had... ten dollars) gave her kiss before exiting her car.
A couple of things that really struck me about this.
1) The Woman Believes In God's Justice: For years evangelists have used the prospect of Hell to scare people into making an intellectual commitment to Jesus Christ. This tactic, which finds its roots in this country during the first Great Awakening in the early 19th century, has over time become so overused, that now there is a backlash out there not only among the irreligious, but also among committed Christians against the notion that Hell exists at all. Belief in Hell then for a good many years has been on the wane, mainly because the concept of it has been so misunderstood. In trying to scare people into making commitments, evangelists have compromised the deeper meaning of the concept: God is a just God.
Back in the eighties and nineties, one of my favorite comics was Sam Kinison. Kinison was mainly known for screaming punchlines, talking about the pain of relationships, and being somewhat blasphemous (hey, I wasn't always a pastor). So blasphemous, in fact, that one year my pastor confiscated a cassette tape (loaned to me by Unc, who then had to go to the pastors office the next week to retrieve it) of Kinison's routines we were listening one day at church camp. And that pastor was actually a pretty laid back guy.
Anyhow, what most people didn't know was that Kinison grew up the son of a traveling pentecostal evangelist, and in the early days of his act, supported himself by preaching revivals in and around Los Angeles area. Kinison, who had heard from an early age that when a person asks Jesus into their heart once, they are saved forever, never feared cosmic retribution for the things he said in his act, or the life he lived (quite fast, ending tragically in a car accident just as he was beginning to recover from a cocaine and alcohol addiction that almost killed him) because he never stopped believing in the irrevocable grace of Jesus Christ he had heard preached hundreds of times. Kinison had asked for forgiveness, and that's all there was do.
But existence of Hell has a deeper meaning than just inspiring a person to take Jesus' "Get Out of Hell Free" card. When Jesus talks about Hell, he makes it clear that living out, or not living out, God's justice in this world matters to God. In Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear that the "goats" are cast into Hell because they don't extend to those in need, including those who are criminals in this world, real world assistance and comfort. In his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Rich Man, who denies Lazarus' pleas for assistance in this life, ends up after he dies in Hell while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. Jesus makes it clear that rich man got his reward while on earth, while now Lazarus gets his in the afterlife, and that the prophets have been attaching the concept of justice to the compassion showed in this life for centuries, only to be ignored. Jesus rides the Pharisees, who he describes as the "Sons of Hell" because their actions don't match up with their teachings. They condemn those who don't follow their actions to an eternity of Hell, yet they don't do the same for themselves.
By making the point that non-Christians who haven't asked either in a physical moment of time for Christ's forgiveness and intellectually assented that they're acceptance of him as the only path to God will go to Hell, evangelists have compromised the deeper meaning that Jesus emphasizes which is God caring about the way we live our lives, and treat others, right now. This is the point the woman in the car makes with the robber, and it so effects (maybe because he grew up in the church and strayed OR maybe he was convicted by the Holy Spirit OR maybe he was shocked a the woman's apparent lack of fear of him and instead her concern for his welfare OR all the above OR maybe something else) him, that he stops what he's doing to listen, and then take inventory of his life.
How does God feel about a man robbing an old woman of her money by threatening to shoot her if she doesn't hand it over? This gets the man's attention, and it should. If anything is worthy of eternal condemnation, this is it.
One of the problems with secular humanism is that doing good is predicated solely on the idea that one should do so because it's in one's own best interest (Enlightened Self-Interest). We live in a world with 6 billion other people. It would be safe to assume that a person could make the deduction that "cutting a corner" here or there really won't matter all that much given the size and scope of this world. It's no coincidence that while white collar crime in this country costs us millions and millions of dollar while injuring thousands of people, that the courts tend to adjudicate these cases with much more lenient sentences than violent crimes. We reason that insurance or the government or a family or a charity will make the difference for those who have been rooked. But what's the consequence culturally and globally in billions of people cutting corners, or turning blind eyes to doing the right thing?
But a Christianity without some kind of sense that God's justice matters, while maybe solving the problem of good people who aren't Christians getting damned for not saying the "Jesus Prayer", threatens to neuter the power of Jesus' teaching by marginalizing the consequences of our actions. After all, if all just shakes out in the wash in the end, what's the real point of sharing the message of the Gospel?
Hell is supposed to convict us that what we do, matters.
2) The Woman Emphasizes A Personal Relationship With Jesus As the Answer To The Man's Problems: One of the more poignant moments in the news story is when the woman said that Jesus was in the car with them because he goes with her everywhere she goes, and the man (somewhat confused), begins looking around the car. If I've had any failing as a preacher and pastor, it's that I've put much more emphasis on the philosophical and intellectual aspects of Jesus ministry, and less on the need for a personal relationship with Him. I suppose this is because understanding what having "a personal relationship with Jesus" is a much more difficult thing to describe than instructions on how to fulfill his teaching and ministry.
The example of the woman in the car gives a beautiful illustration of what a lifetime of a personal relationship looks like. Jesus isn't a concept or philosophy to her. He's always present, always listening. For her this presence has inspired a lifetime of service and devotion meant to please her Master. Daily Bible reading, prayer, and (I suspect) communal worship and study at a local church for her are a means of an ongoing conversation not just about what she should or shouldn't do, but an ongoing reassurance that Jesus will draw as close to her in order to bring comfort and strength. She obviously has a deep, abiding faith, which has inspired a confidence in the Lord of creation. While she doesn't want to die, she is unafraid to do the right thing (telling the robber that he can forgiven and find peace in Jesus) because she doesn't believe in the finality of death. God isn't some dispassionate all-powerful force in the universe that looks down upon us with great indifference, nor is He an angry judge looking to punish her because in light of his perfect will, she just don't measure up. It's through this relationship that the Lord, through his son Jesus, is a teacher, master, and friend who wants to restore everyone. To give them strength in times of trial, and lead to them others who will help them in their life.
Jesus promises us peace, but very little peace is generally found in this world of ours. Drug and alcohol addiction vainly chases away a sense of failure, fear, or anger. Prescription medication, which is exploding in popularity, is designed to re-calibrate the chemicals in the mind so as to chase off depression or anxiety. Kids are loaded up with planned activities so as to keep them away from those elements out there that seek to destroy them (and us, as parents). A few of us out there try eating our way to nirvana, only to suffer the consequences of such a lifestyle. Wealth becomes addictive as a means of trying to chase away the fear of having nothing, while also becoming fool's gold for those who begin to believe that through it all their problems would be solved. Given all this, and more, the goodness of God has never been more highly questioned. A person only needs to hear one story about a young mother torturing her two-year old daughter to death or a young man killing people in a mall after living a troubled life lost in the system to wonder where in the world is a good God in the midst of this.
The woman in the car knows that God wants to express this goodness in a very personal, and profound way. A way that if you live your life in its midst, will be life-altering, and even world-altering. Let us never forget that a profound lesson of Jesus is that while ultimately the world will be restored, it will be the powerful love of God that will initiate, sustain the vision of, and complete this.... and this will occur one person at a time as we experience in real ways His comfort and peace. A comfort and peace that will as real as we allow it to be in terms of the time and energy we put into our relationship with Him.
3) The Woman Gives The Robber the Money Anyway: As the woman speaks from the heart, it becomes apparent to her that words aren't enough. The love and grace of God are real. Thus the fear the robber has of not being able to get what he needs, or wants, that drives him to target someone weak, doesn't possess the woman who most likely is living on a limited income herself. While does she does admonish him not spend the money on "whiskey", she gives all she has to a person who doesn't know what its like to feel like your needs will always be taken care of.
Reminds of the story of Jesus hanging around the Temple watching people put money into the offering box and telling those with him that the largest gift of the day weren't the huge sums given by rich fat cats, but rather the two coins given by the widow cause it's all she has to give away.
Why'd she do it? What do you think.
Jesus doesn't really say, but I've a guess. At some point in every life, you either have to let go of all the artifice, the trinkets and rituals, which you've crafted to keep yourself sane. Whether your hope comes out of material things (which can disappear or end up never being enough to satisfy), other people (who grow and change, and probably don't deserve the kind of pressure and significance you've placed on them), your talent (which erodes as we do), or maybe sense of your own earthly significance (which, while you might end up remembered in some book or folklore, will become more apparent after you are dead and gone.... the world just keeps on turning), sooner or later life will throw enough curves to force you take stock of whatever it is that's been keeping you going.
I suspect that it's the wise person who, on the other side of this moment of truth, discovers that blessings of all kinds in this world make life rich, but can't give it basic meaning.
The fat cats give cause they like the notoriety and respect it brings them in the community, which chases away the demons of their true worth at least for another day. But those demons no longer torment the woman. She has learned the lesson that in a fallen world that's not perfect, that despite the loss of her husband and the economic uncertainty this has brought, that her significance in God's eyes has neither diminished or changed. His love for her unconditional, and thus she no longer vainly tries to fill her life with conditional kinds of things.
I'm sure for the woman in the car, her advanced age had something to do with her apparent lack of fear. After all, 93 years is a lot of years for anybody to live, and time has a way of bringing into perspective that which seemed to matter (but didn't really) when we were less seasoned or wise. But blessed are those who believe even though they have not seen with their own eyes, which I think is what she's trying to say to the man robbing her. You don't need to let time teach you this lesson. That's a much harder road to take, as any of us who have done so can attest.
Instead, trust in mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love, and beginning living a life where you strive to do the right thing with the living God who is alive and with us.
Philosophically, Jesus is right about us. We are sinful, selfish people who will only begin moving this world in a new and better direction by living lives of righteousness. But that alone will not sustain a life. It is only in the direct presence of his deep abiding love which sometimes we feel directly, or through the love he expresses through the blessing of family and friend indirectly, that we will find peace of knowing that God, no matter how things appear, is for us, not against.
And he will not leave us alone.... even as a thug points a gun at us in the parking lot of a WalMart. How marvelous this woman knew this, and how humbling it is to know that she is unashamed to tell others about what she has found.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
The theological reason behind this is that the WB"C" believes in "pre-destination", which is a fancy term meaning that God has already "pre-determined" who is going to Hell and who isn't. What's this mean? Essentially what you do on the face of this earth doesn't really matter because unless you are born, or marry into, the Phelps family, you are pre-destined to go to Hell. What's more, the more they protest, and the more you hate them, the greater the proof is they have been chosen by God, because damned people hate what God loves, OR (if you are following this) the more they are hated by humanity the more they are loved by God. In the end, I suppose, for the WB"C" it's really all about what family you were born into, whether or not they'll share their special gift of being selected by God - and only they are selected by God - with you, and they needing to be hated by you if you won't join them.
Thus, in this twisted kind of logic, the family is killing themselves traveling all over the place to do protests for people who have no eternal hope basically to prove to God that they understand they've been chosen by Him and don't want to lose that "choseness".... although, if you've already been chosen by God, how on earth could you lose it? Oh.. that and they are essentially looking for mates for their children, which is the strangest dating strategy in the history of the world.... ah, but love is not easily explained. They keep making babies, so somewhere out there are people who are willing to throw caution to the wind and become Fred Phelps' latest grandson-in-law.
Well, last month, a parent of young soldier killed in Iraq successfully sued the WB"C" for ten million dollars in a case that raised the issue of whether or not free speech has limits. Spokespeople for the "church" have claimed that this will have no effect on their picketing schedule, as the case is under appeal. Most folks don't know this, but the Phelps family, who essentially is the WB"C" are pretty much all lawyers, trained at a law school in Topeka, Kansas which is near their home. The "church" for years has used the legal system to intimidate its critics, threatening endless law suits members of the family can pursue until the end of time because there are no billable hours involved. I don't think it ever counted a) someone stepping forward with enough resolve to call their bluff or b) a limit being placed on the First Amendment by what they deem as a "liberal godless" court system that holds free speech above and beyond all other things.
I guess they were wrong.
I thought it would be interesting to see how (or if) this reversal of fortune has impacted the "church's" strategy as to get out its message that essential, God hates you (which they claim they are saying out of love for humanity.... how can you make this stuff up?). Surprisingly enough, it has. Instead of funerals, over the course of the next month, the WB"C" will proclaim God's wrath on people attending Billy Joel, R. Kelly, Ozzy Osbourne, (once again, I'm not making this up) Mannheim Steamroller, (hard to write this without laughing) and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concerts, as well as fans attending a basketball game between Kansas and Ohio University (which are all being held in Kansas City).
I'm guessing this probably only temporary until the appellate court rules on the original judgment. For all their bluster, even the WB"C" is smart enough to know that this ruling will mean financial disaster for the family if ultimately it is carried out as you can bet there would be a rash of lawsuits all over the country targeting this "church" which has been merciless to families and communities in intense grief. What's more, I have no idea if the WB"C" is a not-for-profit, but if it is, you'd have to believe that Senator Grassley's probe into pastors mixing their personal wealth with church income would turn it's gaze upon a group of people claiming a tax exemption for an entity that makes overtly political statements. But at least until then, families of soldiers get a reprieve from the stupidity that is children as young as seven holding up a sign that says "Give Thanks For Dead Soldiers". I suppose now there will be new signs...
"God Hates Piano Men"
"Jesus Deserves Better Birthday Music"
"Give Thanks For Canceled Reality Shows"
"Rock, Chalk, Whorehawks"
and my personal favorite
"R. Kelly Is In Satan's Closet"
On another note, if you know someone in the service, or someone who lost a loved one while serving our country, say a little prayer and wish them a "Merry Christmas" this season. Let's hope that maybe they've gotten the gift of the WB"C" being pre-destined to protest instead now at a "Kansas" concert, "American Idol Live", K-State v. Southern Illinois, and the occasional gun or electronics show.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
A Mike Stinson Update, The Golden Compass, and More Knicks Drama (I'll stop writing about the Knicks... I promise)
Mike is awake and has both eyes open which he blinks to communicate. No talking right now since he still has the ventilator tube in (they didn't do the tracheotomy). He can move both arms too. This is great news! Yea, God!! Thanks for the prayers.
Excellent news from Washington D.C. Please keep up the prayer.
On an unrelated note, I thought I'd share for you the thoughts on "The Golden Compass", by Gregg Easterbrook, editor of the New Republic, noted author, and writer of a football column for ESPN.com (Tuesday Morning Quarterback). Highly educated in the field of physics and largely respected in the literary and intellectual world. Easterbrook is also a practicing Christian (although in many respects he's a bit unconventional). Here's what he had to say:
Publishers Slam Religion; Hollywood Cozies Up: Because we have a president who is ostentatiously religious -- as an active Christian, I really wish George W. Bush and other politicians would bear in mind that the First Amendment mandates separation of church and state -- there has been a fad for God-is-a-fraud books. But you can't prove God does not exist any more than you can prove God does! (See Kant's football column.) Recent anti-religion best-sellers by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens read like Middle Ages papal bulls, pronouncing a new orthodoxy in which everything about faith is bad, none of religion's good points and virtues are permitted to be mentioned, and godlessness is the new God you must obey! TMQ pal Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic just had a wonderful line about this: "Religion may confer a preposterous cosmic significance upon the individual, but atheism is the true friend of egotism." It is one thing to suppose there is no divine power, the universe coming into being solely through natural forces; this might turn out to be correct. It's quite another to suppose God is impossible -- that nothing can possibly exist that is greater than a 21st-century pundit with a book to sell. Pretty egotistical, huh?
Meanwhile, TMQ asked in August whether the three Golden Compass books would carry their very strong anti-Christian view onto the silver screen -- the first big-budget installment opens this week. In the Golden Compass trilogy, God is both a fraud (a space alien pretending to be divine!) and the source of every evil in the universe; Christianity is "a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all"; God has created not heaven but hell and sends all souls, even those of the righteous, to hell; Christian churches are run by corrupt power-mad conspirators whose goal is to abolish pleasure in life; the quest of the astonishingly competent English schoolgirl who is the trilogy's heroine is to locate ancient magical objects that will allow her to kill God and free the world from religion.So TMQ wondered whether this anti-Christian worldview would make it into the movies. Hanna Rosin reports in the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly that every trace of religion has been removed from the first Golden Compass flick. God is never mentioned, and the Bad Guys -- who in the books are priests of the Magisterium -- are just generic smirking guys in black robes whose organizational affiliation is never explained. This seems to me an outrageous cop-out. I thought Philip Pullman's Golden Compass books wildly overstated the case against religion, using the harebrained pretense that if faith disappeared, Earth would instantly become a paradise. But anti-religion views are perfectly valid and deserve to be aired; why shouldn't moviegoers get to see a big-budget attack on Christianity? This would be the honest way to film the Golden Compass books.
Should the film series make it to the end of the trilogy, producers will face a real challenge. In the third volume, "The Amber Spyglass," much of the action occurs in hell, where the innocent are being eternally tormented -- the astonishingly competent English schoolgirl leads a commando raid into hell, with the goal of releasing souls to oblivion. In the third book, there's also a phony cloud nine, run by the malevolent false God; a key character is an evil, sex-obsessed archangel whose mission, assigned by God, is to spread human misery; the action builds up to the good characters physically killing God. How is Hollywood going to pretend that has nothing to do with religion?I'd consider Easterbrook to be pretty reliable when it comes to assessing not only the content of the book, but the movie. He has no history of ax-grinding toward atheists or any other religious groups for that matter. He's generally pretty straight forward on matters of the Christian faith. You can catch the rest of Easterbrook's column (which talks about new federal MPG guidelines for U.S automakers, Leonardo DeVinici, the BCS, radio telescopes, and the histrocity of Noah's flood... oh, and football. He talks about football too) here.
As an update to a recent post, three days ago troubled Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury suffered another blow when his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. What makes this situation even more tragic is that Marbury's dad was at Madison Square Garden watching his son play the Suns, when paramedics had to be called at halftime to take Donald Marbury to the hospital. He died while his son was playing in the second-half. Now the city of New York is an uproar because Knicks officials (reportedly on the advise of Steph's family) didn't tell him until after the game that his father had passed away. Today's New York Post contained this scathing article by Peter Vescey, who rips coach and GM Isiah Thomas for not telling the player right away what was going on with his dad. Had Thomas left the choice to Steph, Vescey reasons, possibly he could have spoken to his father one last time before he died.
Vescey's venom is fueled by what he called a continued pattern on the part of Thomas, who's public persona has been one of warmth and compassion, for repeatedly putting his own job security over the welfare of his players. He cites a situation in Indiana during the 02-03 season while he coached the Pacers when Jamaal Tinsley's mother was dying where Thomas refused to give permission to let the point guard leave the team. He was later overruled by the team's president, Donnie Walsh. When she did then pass, the team chartered a plane so that it's players and coaches could go to the funeral, but Thomas reported refused to let his assistant coaches board. Vescey said that as a result, only four players chose to make the trip.
I made a post a couple of days ago that the leagues premier franchise is in real trouble, and needs rescued very, very soon. Given all the ridiculousness (particularly a very public sex harassment trial involving Thomas harassing a member of the Knicks' front office staff that was so explosive it blew a NBA refereeing scandal completely out of the news) the situation has now gone beyond on-court performance.
Will Commissioner David Stern step in soon? Will Knicks owner, James Dolan, finally do what the entire eroding fan base for his team is calling for, and let Thomas go? Or will the drama off-court overshadow the game being played on-court for the rest of the season? I guess the other 13 true fans of the NBA and myself will just have to wait and see.