Saturday, June 30, 2007

Letters From Home: From a Pastor to a Marine

This Sunday's worship service will be Shawnee's annual "Freedom Celebration", where members of the armed forces, past and present, are recognized, celebrated, and prayed for by the congregation. It is also a time that we are called by the prophet Micah to remember what is required of us: To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. As a part of the service we will be reading letters written by friends, family, and a WWII veteran to Wade Broadwater, a Marine who grew up in the Shawnee area, and in our church. My sermon is my letter to him, as we approach the 4th of July. Here it is:

Dear Wade

I hope this letter finds you well as you serve your country in the desert sands of Iraq. I have spent time with your parents and some of your friends, listening to the stories you've told them. I've heard about the sand storms, 130 degree heat, and about the hunger that comes with living on MRE's when you are out on the field. They've talked about a brotherhood so deep that man would be invited to be a godfather to a fellow Marines' child, and the mix of fear and duty one feels when peering into the darkness not knowing who is friend and who is foe. Mostly though, I've heard a lot of people just say over and over how much they love you, are proud of you, and want you to come home safe and sound. Just to make sure you know it... you are a man rich in the things that matter in this life, meaning that you make life just a little bit sweeter for a whole bunch of folks. Know they are all pulling and praying for you.

And I mean praying for you very, very hard.

I am aware that you are working 12 to 14 hour days on electric generators broken down by constant use, unbearable heat, and sand (lots and lots of sand) on an air base 30 miles from Baghdad. Generators that your fellow soldiers count on not only to do their jobs, but to make life just a little more bearable. I also have been told that as a part of your mission you often have to go outside "the wire" which marks the security of the base, out into the field. Into cities like Fallujah, where if the news is any true indicator, chaos reigns supreme. While I have, once, stared down a barrel of a gun pointed at me (in a grocery store one night where there ended up being a robbery... I was trying to buy a box of diapers. Who knew I would end up needing one?) I have can't say that I've ever been in a situation where men who had sworn an oath to, if necessary, shoot me, walked freely with guns, hatred in their heart, ready to open fire. I also too, have never walked a city street with a rifle, ready to hunt these same men down before they killed one of my buddies. It's a scene you can only really imagine if you lived it. And it's a scene, I suppose, that can leave lasting memories, some of which a soldier would rather forget.

A man I met while pastoring in another church, helped me understand this. He grew up on a quiet farm in Northern Indiana. A gentle kid who grew up just wanting to grow corn and soybeans like his old man. But when the United States went to war in Vietnam, wanting to serve his country, he enlisted to defend liberty just as his father and grandfather. After a 12 month tour as a infantryman in some of worst fighting in the jungle, he came home to a confusing mix of anger, shame, and protest. Already reeling from the horrors of his experience, he tried burying it, and for twenty years he did a pretty good job. And then, for whatever reason, his memories came at him with a vengeance creating havoc in his life. His is now a slow, slow process of putting the pieces back together, and finding God's peace in the turmoil of his soul.

I pray that you'd be spared the grizzliest of experiences, but if you aren't, I know my friend would want me to tell you that many other people have walked the road you've walked, and are willing to join you on the journey. There's no shame in asking them, or us, for help, if you, or a fellow Marine, end up needing it.

But that's not why I wrote this letter. No, as we near Independence Day, which we'll celebrate watching the fireworks being set off at Shawnee High School tonight, I wanted this day to make sure you knew something else I think is very important.

Very, very important.

As each of us do our best in this imperfect, broken world to live out the command of prophet Micah who instructed us, "to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God", that as you do your duty as a Marine, know that Jesus Christ knows what it is like to live life "outside the wire". To be hated and vilified. Despised and deceived. To be in the cross hairs of a group of people committed to a cause, and hellbent on removing any and every obstacle in their way. And when the moment of truth arose, his buddies, not nearly so well trained and equipped for battle as their opponents, fled, leaving him all alone. No body armor. No M-16. No air cover, or M1-A1 Abrams tanks for protection. He was just a man left facing the wrath of his own people, and the brutality that served as justice for the Roman Empire. Wade, remember...

Jesus knows what it's like to walk in the valley of death.

Jesus knows what it's like to be afraid.

You'd not believe the kind of cursing, mockery, and disrespect Jesus had to hear from Roman soldiers, who were very bit as crude as US Marines. Or, the jokes told and comments made when he walked this earth with tax collectors, fishermen, drunkards, and prostitutes. Jesus listens, hearing the pain and fear behind the bravado. It is will be in the depth of his compassion for us all when we were at our worst, that you will discover how magnificent and holy he is.

Jesus knows the sheer terror that is death.

Jesus not only witnessed the worst that can be dished out in this world, but has the scars to prove he experienced it. Suffering endured only because he told others that a world where people feel like they have to fight and kill in order to survive, isn't the world God desires for us. Instead, the world he calls us to is one where enemies can be reconciled, and violence is met with forgiveness. It was an idea so foreign to some, particularly those in power, that they thought it, and him, dangerous enough to be silenced through a humiliating death on the cross. Never, ever stop praying and ultimately working for that world Jesus talked about.

Oh... and Jesus is alive. Resurrected from the dead so we would know that death has no victory of him, what he taught, and what will free us all.

In short, no matter what you say, see, or experience, there's nothing so unbelievably horrible that your Lord can't understand, won't listen to, won't forgive, or won't heal. Even that which we aren't ready to forgive ourselves. Jesus is able to carry these burdens not just with us, but for us if we'll let him. We just need to be humble enough to let go of an arrogance that would make us think somehow our experience is too different, too horrible, for God to comprehend what we have been through. God has heard and seen it all. Draw on his great wisdom and strength.

And finally, give thanks each day that ultimately all of our sin deserves eternal punishment, but for whatever reason, Jesus loves us so much he'd bare that punishment for us. That's his justice... the end of our condemnation, so that we might live freely, serving our God and loving into existence his kingdom. That's worth celebrating. Let it be your joy.

In closing, let me say that I believe that the ultimate objective to what you are doing not just as a soldier, or an American, but fundamentally, as a Christian, is to do the dirty work of what ultimately we must all pray will be a new era of freedom and liberty for others. That this moment in time marked by intense hatred and fighting where violence is being met with aggression, will ultimately lead to a time - very soon I pray - where people will grow weary of such ugliness and begin to embrace rebuilding, healing, opportunity, and a world that's better for our children and grandchildren. A time where God's justice will call to account, evil in all its forms. A time where we discover the power of grace.

No matter how we feel about the precursors to the war or those who oppose us, this must be our prayer and objective: That our descendants here, there, and everywhere, will someday experience at time where earth is as it is in heaven.. the place where people do what God wants because they have seen his glory and know He loves us. And that eternity presents for those who trust in the Lord, never ending joy, laughter, and peace.

Keep safe. Always be there for your buddies. Never forget how many people love you. And, for the purpose of this letter, always know your church, and your pastor, are praying for you.

Don't worry, we'll keep an eye on your family, particularly your mom and dad. We'll offer shoulders to cry upon, ears that will listen, and knees willing to be calloused from prayer for your safety, and the end of this war. It's really the least we can do for a man who shows such bravery going "outside the wire" for the freedom of his nation, and for a Savior who went "outside the wire" for the freedom of all the world.

Hope to see you soon.

God Bless,

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Few Thoughts On The Upcoming NBA Draft

Ah, I can just see thirty people seeing the letters N-B-A, now clicking over to what The Thief or Aaron Wymer blogged about today. Anyhow, a couple of quick thoughts on the NBA Draft:

- Rule number 1 if you are a NBA GM: Never pass on a 20 year old center who looks 40 years old, and can at times dominate a game like he's in his prime. I mean, if he can do that now, at times, what will he be able to do in his prime? Oden goes to Portland. And that's all.

- Mike Conley is going to be a pretty good point guard in the NBA... if he develops a jump shot. I mean, Jason Kidd is the only point guard in recent memory who couldn't score all that well, and did a good job (and yet how many times has he been traded in his career, or won a title?) and Conley can't see the floor like Kidd (few can), so once he gets pummeled going to the hole repeated by rugged 6'10" power forwards, what does he do then? If I were his agent, he'd be with a personal shooting coach every single day.

- The lottery was a disaster for the NBA. The two top picks are going to be in the Pacific Northwest, meaning that not only will the Leastern Conference not get any better, but two guys that will be carrying the league into the future will never be on TV early than 10pm on the east coast. And much like the NHL, the NBA has little or no following outside of the cities with teams... and most of the ones with the largest populations are in the east, so this is not good. This puts more pressure on Miami, Detroit, and Cleveland to step up and get the players they need so they can compete for a championship... or more accurately, David Stern will put more pressure on these franchises so that in five more years the NBA Finals isn't showing on the Versus Network.

- The thing that makes this draft interesting to us NBA-ophiles, is it's trade potential. With guys like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant looking for a change of scenery, other guys like Andre Kirilenko wearing out their welcome in their current town, and GM's like Isiah Thomas lurking out their to make big moves (that often make no sense) the chances of a lot of players moving tomorrow are good. While Oden and Durant are probably done deals, every spot from 3 on down could end up being a part of a trade, meaning lots of teams could get new looks next season... and after this season, that's OK by me.

- It cannot be debated that the NBA instituting a minimum age for players ended up being good for both pro and college basketball. The college game has real stars playing in it again, while the NBA benefits from the exposure these players get in the most popular basketball tournament on the planet. It's just too bad the minimum age couldn't be raised higher, like to 21, so kids could get a little more polished and educated. Here's hoping that's considered down the line.

- I couldn't be more excited that the NBDL is coming to Ft. Wayne. Max, Xavie, and I will definitely see a game or two. I've missed minor league basketball ever since the Ohio Mixers (CBA) folded up their tents here in Lima and left for Cincinnati. I mean, as a kid I got to watch Billy Ray Bates in his twilight years break a backboard at Lima Senior's gym. The guy was a legend (often for the wrong reasons) and we saw him play for $3. Who knows what future role players, or off-court legends we'll get to see play in the D-league... I'm giddy with the possibilities.

- If you watch the draft, give me a call with updates. I'll be at church camp with the High School youth group, feeding them pizza and generally just letting them know that their senior pastor cares about them. Given all the upheaval it's really not enough to fix everything that's happened (as we look for our fourth youth pastor in four years), but it's a start. Besides, I've got a lot good memories from that church camp. It'll be good to be back to see the talent show (which has been scheduled for the Thursday night of that camp since Moses signed up to do bird calls).

But please, send those text messages.. and no fake "LeBron James is traded to the Lakers for Ronnie Turiaf and the rights to 7'9" center from the French Alps". My fragile heart can't take that kind of humor.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Top Ten "Get Pumped Up" Songs

Was at Max's swim meet last night (1st in Fly, 2nd in 50 Free, 1st in Breast, IM relay was DQ'ed) and before the meet somebody was playing "Big Poppa" by the Notorious BIG to (I guess) pump up the swimmers. Pay no mind that most of the kids are so young they have no idea who the Notorious BIG is, and that the song has all the intensity of the staff working at a South Carolina lumber yard in the dead of August, at 2:30 in the afternoon. It was a bad choice.

Which got me thinking.... back when I ran cross country (twenty years and 150 pounds ago), I would always listen to Genesis "Turn It On Again" on my Walkman knock-off before I'd go out an raced to 53rd place. So, what are my Top Ten "Get Pumped Up" songs? Thanks to a real case of writer's (sermon) block, here they are:

10) Bang The Drum All Day (Todd Rundgren): Because I really don't want to work. I'd rather bang on a drum all day. It's true.

9) Big Time (Peter Gabriel): The really ironic part of this song was that it was Peter Gabriel's reaction to everything he thought was bad about the eighties. The growing materialism. Yuppies. The emergence of the SUV. Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" ethos dominated the decade, and Gabriel's work was a scathing indictment of it. But the song has a such a good groove, that it gets me going, even as I sing "on my way to my big church, to pray to my big god". Very strange.

8) Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel): Best double entendre song in all of history. AC/DC has been ripping it off now for ten years as lyrical inspiration. Not to mention that the bass line and the horns are killer. Still a favorite while riding on a garden tractor while mowing the lawn.

7) Flashlight (Parliament): Bootsy Collins is greatest living funk bass player alive. Couple that with George Clinton's unique music gifts (insanity?), and you get something very, very special. Growing up in Lima as a "city school kid", I always had friends that listened to funk and rap, and you can never escape your influences. You'll probably also never love any other music more than the music you grew up listening to as a teenager. Hence the large volume of funk songs in my MP3 player.

6) Sunday Bloody Sunday (U2): The version recorded live at Red Rocks. When the crowd sings so loud they drown out Bono. Great stuff!

5) Turn It On Again (Genesis): One of my favorite albums growing up as a kid was "Three Sides Live". If you've ever listened to it, you know that the first song, on the first album is "Turn It On Again", and if you've ever heard it, you'll know that there is a very long intro where there's just a bass and keyboard, and the sound of a crowd that can't wait for the show to begin. I always thought that was cool. I think Genesis still uses this tune to open their shows (on occasion), even though it was written long before they were ever all that popular. Not only gets the blood flowing, but connects me to that skinny junior high kid sitting in a van, getting ready to run 2.5 miles as fast as he can.

4) Don't You Want Me (The Human League): Really could have been five or six Human League songs. Why? I'm a sucker for Eurotrash pop synth music. It's my guilty pleasure. Well, that and "ABBA" and another genre of pop music you will learn about, shortly.

3) Message In A Bottle (The Police): Probably the best song ever written about isolation and loneliness that you'll ever play air guitar to.

2) Mr. Blue Sky (ELO): While we were living in West Virginia, about the last year we still lived down in the valley on Cread Drive, a kid moved in down the street who was three or four years older than I. Joe Burdette was a great guy, who, probably because no one else lived close to him who was his age, would always invite to come over to hang out. He'd let me ride his motorcycle. He'd let me play his Atari and his hand held Mattel Football Game (the white one that featured red lights as players). And whenever we were anywhere, he'd be playing ELO. Why? I've no clue. But even to this day, if I could ride my motorcycle, alone, on a sunny spring day, with one song blaring out of the radio, and I could choose it, I'd pick this one. It truly sums up what the first nice day after a long cold winter is like. That and you can sing like an opera singer at the top of your lungs with the choir.

1) We Are Family (Sister Sledge): Hints at my love for (forgive me Uncle Jack for I have sinned against you) disco. The Bee Gees, KC and Sunshine Band, Evelyn "Champaign" King, Donna Summer, Kool and the Gang, The Village People, Earth, Wind and Fire..... you've never lived until you've read Lesslie Newbigin with a disco soundtrack (just trust me on this one). And best disco song ever written was We Are Family... or maybe I just remember the hysteria around the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. I don't know... it's one or other. It's either the greatest disco song ever recorded, or it's just more nostalgia gone wild. Either way, it's great to listen to on a treadmill.

Honorable Mention:
- Like To Get To Know You Well (Howard Jones): Have you seen "Better Off Dead"?
- Welcome to the Jungle (Guns and Roses)
- Panama (Van Halen)
- Rivalry (Big Tent Revival)
- Jesusfreak (DC Talk)
- Jet Airliner (Steve Miller Band)
- Whip It (Devo)
- Rockin the Suburbs (Ben Folds)
- Battle Hymn of the Republic (as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir): So sue me.
- Bananaphone (Raffi): Quit scoffing you elitist.
- Buckeye Battle Cry (The Ohio State Marching Band): Like Auburn, Georgia or Florida have anything can compare. Get real.
- American Mall (Hoag): It's like ten simultaneous shots of espresso.
- Copacabana (Barry Manilow): Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl. But that was many years ago, when they used to have a show..... I'm gonna take a lot of ribbing for this one, aren't I.
- On Top Of The World (The Carpenters): But not as much ribbing as I'll take for this.

OK, now I can work again. (What... you think I can wax poetic on youth ministry, post-modern Christianity, and death all the time? Expect less from a guy who as a kid thought Fonzie was the coolest guy in the world. Hehhhhhhhhhhh!)

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Return of Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Hi. Sorry for the long-layoff. I've been planning sermon series (every week from the beginning of August until Lent), meeting Haitian pastors, visiting the sick, officiating funeral services, meeting with long-lost parishoners, dealing with rumors of various origin, going to monster-long swim meets (but you should see how much progress Max is making!), and ignoring my dissertation (for now). Couple that with having gone to Annual Conference, trying to move into a house that we're simultaneously trying to renovate (in the basement only), and visits from cousins who live in North Carolina, and you have one ridiculously busy month of June.

Oh... all that, and I helped dig the footer for my mother-in-law's tombstone. But more on that later....

2) I think if you could summarize the experience of having gone from associate to senior pastor in one word, that word would be "shellshocked". I never realized how afraid of failure I was until we moved home, and being in the middle of countless crisis, problems, and opportunities has often left me feeling like a guy in a pit filled with poisonous snakes, armed only with a banana. I mean, I know what I need to do as a senior pastor, but the part nobody can prepare you for is the constant weight of responsibility you feel for, well, everything. The mortgage and the children's ministry. The welfare of the staff and the ongoing support of the Haiti ministry. Pulling together a worship service each week and caring for the shut-ins. Adult discipleship opportunities and hiring a new youth pastor. Bishops who want apportionments paid and a parking lot that needs a new top coat. It's all there, and more, every day. That's what all the degrees, books, and even on-the-job training as an associate cannot prepare you for. It's like putting on a vest made of lead that you can't ever take off, and some days it wears easier or lighter than others. That has been the most difficult adjustment to make, thus far.

3) The most pressing of all upcoming responsibilities is the hiring of a new youth pastor (which, I might remind you, will be our fourth in four years). I felt really bad about our church's record, until I began talking with senior pastors at other churches around the country who were facing the same kinds of issues we're facing. Disgruntled parents. Fickle kids. Frustrated Staff-Parish Relations Committees. And most of all, youth pastors that just don't seem to fit. Ten years ago the average tenure for a youth pastor was 18 months, and now it's nine.

What the heck is going on?

Well, instead of jumping back into the process, we decided to take a month to pray over this, and see where the Lord might lead us. During that time, I've come to the conclusion that in our next search we need to look for someone who is:

- Passionate: I mean, with all the turnover and aftermath of hard feelings, whoever comes in next is going to have to really want to succeed. They'll need to meet all the negative emotional fallout with never-ending optimism. In fact, they'll just need to see something that's not there yet, and hang on to what they see no matter what obstacles they must traverse. They can't be overwhelmed by the prospect of countless games, concerts, and glasses of soda at the local Arby's. And, most importantly, they'll have to believe this thing is too big for them to accomplish on their own. If they aren't a "turn lemons into lemonade" kind of person, they'll never make it in this job.

- Personable: The person we hire had better like people. All kinds of people. Rich people and poor people. Athletic people and couch-potato people. Faithful people and faithless people. Old, middle aged, and young people. They can't be afraid to meet with people, or talk with people, or pray with people, or sing with people, or laugh, or cry with people. And they'll have to live close by so that they don't have to drive 80 minutes round-trip just to see people. They'll have to live with the fact that some people won't like them, most often for reasons they'll never understand, and love them back anyway.

They gotta love Jesus, and in turn, love his people. They gotta like to be around people.

- Predictable: I'm kinda at a point in life where I want the people I work with to understand the value of "routine". People who understand the need for a certain predictability to the weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule of the church. People who schedule things, plan them, and then execute them, when and where they said they were going the conduct said "things". People who others know will be at the ball game or the concert or even volunteer as a chaperon for the Marching Band. People who don't promise the moon when they know it can't be delivered. People who just do what they say they are going to do. People who can work creatively in the midst of a predictable schedule. That will be a key, I think, to people trusting a new youth pastor. Predictability.

Passionate, personable, and predictable. If we can somehow find that person, I've a sense that a new day will dawn for youth ministry in Shawnee.

4) And on the flip side, while passionate, personable, and predictable sound all well and good, the fact is that we're going to have to do a better job of making a youth pastor feel like they are part of the family of our church, the fabric of the staff, and valued member of the community. Too often we've let our expectations cloud our better judgment, and in turn put a person under a microscope of scrutiny when frankly, instead they needed support. I remember in my first year at Goshen that things were really rough. Kids were upset that the former youth pastor and his assistant had been let go. The adult volunteers that had been rustled up for me, many of them weren't all that excited to be there. Everyone had an opinion of what I needed to be doing, and were quick to voice it, particularly in forums that created for me a lot of heat. And all the while, my senior pastor, Dick Lyndon, backed me 100%. He might have asked me to put some things together to get folks to stop carping a little, but he gave me time to starting building my own team. And, when some people checked out (and I mean prominant people, like a family related to a well-respected, powerful politician whose presence had brought the church a lot of prestige), Dick still had my back. Fortunately, over time, I fulfilled his expectations, and there was a payoff for his patience. I suspect that in the last three years, in certain critical junctures, we could have offered prayer instead of greater demands.

5) Which reminds me of one of my favorite Dick Lyndon stories. About three years into my tenure at Goshen First, a family started attending our church that contained a mother who kinda liked to throw her weight around and let others know who was "in charge". In her view, nobody ever could do the job like she could, and her opinion was pretty much always the right one. Anyhow, after coming to church a couple of months, she started volunteering in the food court for our youth ministry on Wednesdays, and on her second or third night on the job, she decided to test the waters to see how much weight she had to throw around.

The issue she chose was baseball caps... caps that boys were wearing in the building, which she found to be very disrespectful to God. I mean, forget the fact that on Sunday morning her own husband wore a baseball cap to church.... these caps were a real crisis. So anyhow, she stops me when I'm in the middle of pulling together about ten other different things, and asks me what I think about the baseball caps. Well, quite honestly, I could care less, and thus gave her my "well, in the Old Testament, wearing a head covering inside a holy building was considered a sign of respect" explanation, and then upon being told that this was not OT times, just told her than in three years it hadn't been a big deal, so I was going to leave it that way.

Well, about ten minutes later, Dick walks in the door, which he often did just to see how things were going, and to just try to thank teens and adults for being at TGIW that evening. Immediately, this woman, as a means of supplanting my authority on the issue of baseball caps (and believe me when I say this - everything else too) goes to the SENIOR PASTOR to press her case... that God was unhappy with all these teen boys wearing baseball caps, the youth pastor DIDN'T CARE that God was unhappy about this, and shouldn't the senior pastor now step in and correct this great injustice.

Dick looks at her and asks, "While they are here, are the kids doing drugs?"

"No", she replied.

"Well, are they having sex?"

"Absolutely not", she replied.

"Well then", Dick responded, "then I'm happy with how things are now."

And he walked away. That was pretty much the day I decided I'd do whatever the guy wanted, cause I knew he believed in what I was doing... and in me.

I'd like like to be that kind of senior pastor. The one who goes to bat for the guy or gal taking guff for ball caps.

6) LeBron will back in the NBA Finals. All he needs to get over the hump is...
a) a point guard (preferably Mike Bibby in free agency or a trade, but I'd take an aging Andre Miller or a free agent like Chauncy Billups).
b) Drew Gooden traded to a team for true outside shooter
c) the return of Flip Murray (who can light it up as a sixth man)
d) dumping Damon Jones' contract via the "Allen Houston Rule" so that Anderson Varejao can be re-signed.
e) Scot Pollard and Ira Newble on the first bus out of town, replaced with a couple of older guys who know what it takes to win
f) Mike Brown hiring the first-ever Offensive Coordinator in NBA history (so the offense can be more than that one play where they set the high pick for LeBron, and he figures out the rest)
g) the invention of a time machine so Donyell Marshall could be seven years younger

that's all I'm asking.

7) Did you ever think you'd live to see the day where the Indians and Tigers would be battling it out for a division title in the American League? I'm pretty sure it's one of the signs of the apocalypse, so you'd better get right with Jesus, right now.

8) Had a major scare Saturday night. We were at the Lima Locos game (the Locos are a local ball team made up of college players who are prospects for the pros... they aren't paid, but rather work at local businesses during the day and live with area families all summer so they can play ball all summer against top notch collegiate competition in front of major league scouts) and Max was hit with foul ball right behind his left year on his skull. It was very, very scary. I ended up taking him to the ER at St. Ritas where I learned that if after a head injury a child a) doesn't pass out, b) doesn't vomit, and c) continues to behave in a manner consistent with his personality, that the ER elects not to do a CT scan. The reason for this is that studies have shown that children who have had more than one CT scan are more likely later to develop some form of brain cancer. The important thing is to watch the child, and if they do begin to vomit or begin to show erratic behavior, that they need to be returned the ER immediately. I also had to wake up Max four hours into his sleep to make sure he was still coherent.

Of course, to do this, you need to think up questions the kid can answer to figure out how sharp he is, and me, groggy in the middle of the night, can only think of one: "Max, what day is it?"

"Wednesday!?!", he replies, at 2:30am on a Sunday morning.

Great question for a kid out on summer vacation. Like he knows what day it is.

So I asked him the name of his youngest brother, and Xavier's age. Thankfully, all was well. NOTE: Max wants Mr. Travis to know that he'll play baseball with John David, but other than that, he's retired from the sport. Instead, he says he'll stick with swimming.

9) We have a swim meet tomorrow night. The last swim meet we had, we had to be there at 4pm for pictures, and it ended at about 10:45pm. I'm glad Dad stopped by so we could chat while Max played with his friends (Xave and Eli stayed home with Mom, who was tired from working so hard getting this house together). It made the night enjoyable, me there talking with my Dad, periodically rooting for my son and various other kids from the team.

I have particularly enjoyed Max's progress this season. He's cutting time off his personal bests, and is really starting to show a competitive streak that he is using to become more focused on the task at hand. He pulled his first ever "First Place" in the breast stroke, and he couldn't have been more determined to swim efficiently and quickly. It was very, very cool to watch. He's really doing well.

10) Finally, I'll be heading up to Lakeside to spend a couple of days with our youth group at the Northwest Plains District Senior High Institute. Charlotte is already up there (filling the youth pastoral role), and her assessment is that the kids in the group are a great bunch. I'm looking forward to listening to these kids, praying for them, and then coming back with their perspective on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, church, and how those things intersect with their lives ringing in my ears. It should be most informative, and I believe, instrumental in our quest to make them feel like valued members of our congregation.

That, and I'll buy them pizza and ice cream. I'm guessing they'll dig that too.

10+) Am excited about the sermon series we'll doing this fall. Starting in August, we'll begin a six week series called "Jesus In The Suburbs", where we look at how that which makes the suburbs a nice place to live (relative affluence, privacy, isolation from issues that plague other parts of the community, marking our success by how far we've come materially or professionally, etc...) can kill a spiritual life if you let them. So the idea isn't that we need to leave the burbs to save our soul, but rather to look for ways that Christ is speaking to us, right where we are. "A Letter From Prison" will be a fall series focused on Paul's letter to the Philippians. What makes the letter so compelling, is that it is a letter of encouragement to a people who are discouraged because the letter-writer is in locked up in jail, and his outcome is uncertain. Paul, I think, does a wonderful job of looking at how suffering if a necessary part of the Christian life, and given all the churches right now who are teaching that our faith is all about people naming and claiming material and physical health, I think his message is an important one to hear. Finally, after Advent (which will be focused on the Birth of Jesus... that makes planning simple), we'll do another six week series called "Heroes", which will focus on how the spiritual fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control are really superpowers that can change, and even save, the world.

I'm excited. I hope you are too.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Treasure

I stopped yesterday out at Otterbein Cridersville to visit with Kenyon Howison. Earlier in the day, her husband, Earl, passed away after 98 pretty good years. Earl and Kenyon only moved into Assisted Living about two months ago (they had been in the Independent Living section for 17 years), and he had actively golfed until he was 92. While the last year has been a rough one for him, his life has been filled with family, friends, and lots of rounds of golf. The Howisons were just a couple months short of 70 years of marriage, and I think if you ask Kenyon, she'll tell you that the older she gets, the more blessed she realizes she has been.

Kenyon has been a member of Shawnee since before we built the current sanctuary. She can remember her and Earl walking with their son, Jeff, from their home in Elmview on Sunday mornings featuring good weather, to the "pretty little white chapel" that used to stand in the cemetery next door. Like me, she grew up at Trinity, in town, but when Bob Kimes was pastor way back in the days when Shawnee was on a three point circuit with Westview and Hume, after preaching an early service at Westview, he'd drive down Shawnee Road to preach here. Apparently, his route and schedule became so well known, that one day Kenyon went out to meet him as he drove down the road. She said less than a year later they transferred their membership.

"Bob was a nice man, and we could walk to church. You just couldn't beat that."

The coming years were filled with Circle meetings, rummage sales, spaghetti dinners, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and plenty of friends. She can remember the "walk over" from the old building to the new. She's still proud of the building the congregation built but misses the simple, pretty chapel, whose existence is now only marked by a small plaque that rests in the cemetery where it once stood. Much of her life was spent here on the corner of Zurmehly and Shawnee, and the memories are now rich and deep.

She told me that pastors needed to fun people. People who like to laugh, and make other people laugh. Life, she told me, is too short to be around a minister who is somber all the time. I took that as a license to make her laugh, and so I did.... repeatedly. And what a laugh she has! We were making a quite a ruckus last night. It was probably the only ruckus in all of Cridersville.

I'm sure the world she now largely only experiences through the visitors who come through her door, the staff at the facility, and the television, mystifies her in a multitude of ways. And like many of her generation (and of every generation, I suppose), I suspect she fears for the future. But I'll tell you this... while it might have been a fun preacher and easy commute to lure the Howisons to Shawnee, the thing that kept them here were good friends, meaningful worship, a sense that they seem to know Jesus better with each passing Sunday, and the decision to stand behind the commitment they made to do what they could to uphold the ministry of this place as long as they could.

And thank God they did, for Shawnee is a richer place for that gift.

Anyhow, remember the Howisons as they celebrate and grieve the loss of Earl. And if you have the time, maybe stop out at Otterbein to see Kenyon. Just so you know, she loves dogs (she misses her little chihuahua who died at 19 years of age) and she loves to laugh.

Monday, June 04, 2007

TenThings I Think I Think

1) After a long weekend where we moved the rest of our stuff home from Wilmore, a trip to go buy furniture at an IKEA store in suburban Detroit that was wholly unsuccessful, a lot of work trying to whip our new property into shape, a jump into the pool with a my cell phone in my pocket, a nerve-wracking but blessed first service as a senior pastor, and a second day as a senior pastor that included an Ad Board tonight where people started asking tough questions, I think maybe I don't have the energy to think about ten things.... but we'll see that happens.

2) Our family and about thousand boxes are now safely in our home. Of course those boxes won't unpack themselves, but unlike the other large number of moves we've made, this one is totally different in that we're trying to remodel space as we move in..... which creates lots of issues. The space is the basement, and since we can't fill it with stuff, the stuff has to sit in other areas of the house, which creating a log jam of boxes that can't be unpacked as of yet. The end result is that now the garage is filling up, and we're at the mercy of the guy doing the work in our home to kind of break the logjam. So we treat him well, and pray for him often. We invite you to do so also.

3) A big thank you to everyone at church Sunday, and everyone who would have liked to have been there but just weren't able to make it. We appreciate your support and prayers, and more importantly, look forward to working with everyone who love Shawnee UMC to keep moving joyously into the future, as a true family of faith, reaching out to everyone so that they might know the peace and love and Jesus. Was especially touched by all the friends and family who came to the service to celebrate with us this new chapter that we're opening up now. Just a great day.

4) A lot of people who have been instrumental in my life showed up Sunday. My uncle, Jack, (who came with his lovely wife, Beth) who has loved me like few other uncles could love a nephew (even though he'll not return my low wave when we pass one another on our motorcycles cause I ride a lowly Kawasaki). Noreen Parish who was the best Sunday School teacher I ever had. My Dad's twin brother David, and his wife Chris, who live out their faith in a way that would make my Grandmother Bucher proud. A host of great people from Lima Trinity (my home church) who celebrated probably are still scratching their heads wondering how I ended up as a pastor. Paul and Kelly Clemens, the first couple I ever married (their daughter thanked me for marrying them because that made it possible for her to be alive). Terry and Myra Moneer who (among many others, particulary a guy named Harry Folden) taught me that humor and Christian faith mix very, very well.

And a guy named Phil Heath. He was there.

Phil volunteered in the youth ministry at Trinity while I was a youth, and never has one person had such a huge impact on another, just by being present, real, and loving. I know Phil has never thought that what he did in those days was all that big a deal, but with every ski trip and church camp he took time off to spend with us, Phil taught us what it meant to be Christian. He was humble, present, caring, a lot of fun, and willing to knock us back into line for our own good. I love what he did as a volunteer youth leader cause he was a volunteer... he chose spend his time with us for no other good reason than he felt like he should do it. He never pretended to have it all together, or that he was some bible scholar. He just shared who he was, with us. His sacrifice and friendship will always be appreciated.

Thanks to everyone who went out of their way to show up, and to Mom for the great lunch after the service.

5) Of course the new job comes with new responsibilities and challenges. Shawnee always faces challenges when it comes to finances. Our youth ministry has been in constant turmoil for three years, which has led to much frustration and pain. Our ministries by and for adults need much attention. And, it's always traumatic when a church loses a long-time senior pastor. Always.

But, I don't know. The more time I spend in this office and in this position, I grow less fearful and weary at the amount of work at hand, and instead am energized by the opportunities. We have done, and will continue to great work in service of Jesus here at Shawnee, and call me crazy, but I believe the Lord is using things that make us frustrated and uncomfortable to move in new directions and whisper to us new solutions. I can't help it... I just believe that the Kingdom needs this church to be strong, creative, and impassioned. And that's what frustration is - anger turned sideways.

I spent a lot of time the last year thinking about words of Lessie Newbigin, who believed that spiritual warfare was in its essence, humanity struggling with those spiritual forces that shaped the way the world around us works. The metaphor I use to understand it, personally, comes out of every experience I ever had trying to fix or assemble anything mechanical, or even non-mechanical. All the pieces are designed to fit together, but but my own lack of skill, and the sheer difficulty at times that can come in trying to put those pieces together in the right order is personally very maddening. It's like the time I replaced a starter on a 1990 Toyota Pick-Up. I initially took off the wrong bolts on the mechanism, and ended up taking apart the starter, but then having to find the right bolts to take what was left of it out of the truck. Then I accidentally dropped one of the said bolts into the transmission, and had to go buy a high-powered magnet to fish it out. Between all the struggling with taking and fishing bolts out, as well as figuring out how to put them back in, it took me five hours, a repair manual, and some help from my neighbor Rolo to fix the truck.

But that's the struggle in life, isn't it. It all fits together, somehow, but it can be - often at our own making - so impossibly complex or difficult to grapple with (particularly when we encounter something we don't have much experience with) that often "the fix" becomes more painful or difficult than what is broken. Newbigin talks a lot about this in his book "The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society", but it's his contention that it's less evil that we are wrestling with, but a wild, untamed creation that is always creating and renewing... beckoning us always to something closer to the heart of God's desire. So the hard work and sacrifice necessary obscure often what we think we are racing, or plodding, towards because hard work and sacrifice never feel all that good.

But man... you should have been there the moment I turned that key, and took that truck over the 7-11 for a celebratory Slurpee.

I know spiritually, there are "Slurpees" consisting of relationships renewed, lives changed, the oppressed set free, the poor made rich, and the Lord pleased greatly out there for us. I just know it.

6) Finally, don't bother expecting me to call right now. In order to save my youngest from drowning, last Saturday I jumped into the pool with my cell phone in my pocket. Today it just began answering phone calls, but my screen looks like modern art, so it's impossible to summon phone numbers and the like. Of course, trading a working a phone for Elijah isn't even an issue or choice. Eli never made down the final step, and I as his father did what I am committed to do... watch over his little clueless cute self until the day comes that he can make better choices for himself. Consider that for the next couple of days as my Samsung slowly dries.

7) For those who have asked... yes, I watched LeBron's 48 point performance, and my thoughts on it are this: I haven't seen a player dominate a game like that since Jordan had that game against Portland in the Finals where he was so ridiculously hot that all he could do was throw his hands up and shrug. Only, in that game, Jordan was surrounded by one of the most talented teams in the NBA, and LeBron is willing his teammates, who aren't the most talented team in the NBA, to this improbably run at a championship years younger before Jordan was able to do the same.

Let the LeBron era begin, and let's hope guys like Duane Wade, Carmello Anthony, Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, and host of other up and coming players usher in basketball that hasn't been this exciting since the days of Bird and Magic.

8) You watch... this thing with Billy Donovan in Florida is going to end badly. This isn't like when Coach K almost left Duke to coach to Lakers... that was an old b-ball coach looking for possibly one last challenge before he hung up his clipboard. This is different. Donovan is young and unsatisfied playing second banana to a football program that owns that school, because football as a sport owns that state (and the south for that matter). I don't care what kind of contract he signs with the Gators now... him leaving for something better will always be the Achilles heel of that program. He'll be the subject of speculation for every major coaching job that comes available, and no matter what he says, people will wonder if he'll be bolting town soon. If Florida was smart, they'd just tell Billy to beat it, and make the call to that coach at VMI because what Donovan wants he can't have at that football school. I give it two years before this whole thing implodes or he skips out of town under the cover of darkness. Gator fans, don't say you weren't warned.

9) I have the greatest wife in the world. She's been working non-stop getting our home packed, and now unpacked, with a mopey, crying terrible-two year old hanging all over her. She's grieving the loss of her Beeson sisterchicks and having to face the loss of her mom all over again now that we are truly back home. And yet, I can't tell you how much she continues to do for us, with the attitude of a true servant (most moments... I mean, all us males drive her nuts so cut her a little slack). She is way, way better than I deserve, and I love her.

10) And if you've been wondering, the news from my Beeson brothers and sisters has been good. Rumor has it that Alicia and Matt have both found houses. Kent is in Tanzania training pastors. Travis and Ginny are still waiting on their baby to make its move (hang in there Ginny), and Trav and Becca has found out they're having a girl (Trav has no chance... consider him already wrapped around her finger). Aaron is picking up where he left off at Grandview (a church ecstatic to have him back I'm guessing). And, all in all, they all seem to be doing well, although, if you could say a prayer for Randy and Sue's daughter, Ana, I'm sure they'd appreciate it. It's just hard leaving people who became like family to you.

I hope we all see each other again, on this side.