Thursday, December 24, 2009

Twas The Night Before Christmas v2.0

Twas the night before Christmas
and all through Shawnee
there was wrapping and singing
and lit Christmas trees

As musical people
tuned up their guitars
my cell phone was useless
only sporting 2 bars

When out in the lot
there arose such a clatter
I sprang out of my office
to see what was the matter

and there big as life
next to Zurmehly Road
was Santa himself
outside our brick abode

"I haven't be able,"
he said wistfully,
"to come out for worship
on Christmas Eve.

You see I am working,
up here in this sleigh
and I'm always so busy
each year on this day.

So, I wondered," he asked,
"If it'd be quite alright
if I stopped her to worship
on this very night."

"That's cool." I told him
the original Clause.
"Here's a cup of hot coffee.
Come sit. Take a pause."

For the next twenty minutes
he regaled me with tales
of Christmas Eves past
and all their travails.

But after awhile
he just stared into space
and a look of true weariness
covered his face.

"It wasn't always like this",
the bearded man said.
"It became so commercial
that it's spinning my head.

I remember the days
when a small piece of fruit
was widely considered
a great piece of loot.

Now my sleigh is so big
so plum full of stuff
and I'm always left thinking
it is never enough."

There's nothing quite like
sad St. Nick on the eve
of the morning where children
will squeal out with glee.

But was such was my lot
on this rare holiday.
So I pondered just what
on earth I would say.

Then it suddenly hit me
like a full ton of bricks.
I knew how to counsel
a glum old St. Nick.

"You know there's only one reason
to put yourself through this mess.
To spend your night visiting
every earthly address.

It began with a woman,
a man and a star.
Shepherds and angels
and wise men from far.

A small, warm safe manger
and a baby so small,
whose birth was a gift
of goodwill to all."

He just nodded his head.
He had little to say.
And a smile on his face,
as he looked far away.

We've all got a part
none too small or too odd
to make real in this world
the Kingdom of God.

A Kingdom where all
know a heavenly peace.
Where fighting and hunger
and warring all cease.

You might call me a dreamer
or a bat-crazy loon
to believe this world here
will improve anytime soon.

But all that I know
on that lone Christmas Eve
was Santa stood up
and brushed off his sleeve.

Then he gave me a wink
and climbed on his sleigh
giddyapped all those reindeer
and went up, up, away.

Don't feel alone
if sometimes you feel
like the whole thing is pointless
just a cog in a wheel.

It's normal I think
to feel in over your head.
To want to pull up the covers
and hide in your bed.

Just remember tonight
that he's flying again
doing his little part
to put the world on the mend.

So, in closing let's do
what the Good Lord wants done.
Take a message of love
to every daughter and son.

And if you get weary
just remember this day
'bout the babe in the manger
laying lo in the hay.

On earth, peace and goodwill
from the Lord to us all.
May it always be true
for the big and the small.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hi. Remember me?

Brother Esq recently rattled my cage about this blog so I decided to go back and see how long its been since I've posted anything.

September ?!? Gads!!!

Doesn't mean I haven't written anything (there are many partially completed quasi-sermon outlines and manuscripts) but I just didn't feel, for whatever reason, to post what had been written. In any event, it's been a while. Here are some updates, random thoughts, and whatever else comes up.

- Right off the bat the reason I haven't done much posting (besides being so busy my head has been spinning) is really related to the end of my dissertation, which has still not been completed. I think in my mind every time I started to write on this blog, I though, "If you are going to write, might as well be dissertation writing." Only problem is, the two kinds of writing aren't remotely similar. In this forum, I just spout off a bunch of random, off-the-top-of-my-head stuff. Most of it isn't all that helpful, or well-thought out, hence so many more non-posts than posts over the four years or so this thing has been going.

Dissertation writing is tedious. You have to comb through hours of transcribed interviews (which is really, really boring), make notes about quote and figures, and then compile them into something that makes sense. I know it's not supposed to be fun but still.... with a million other things that need to be done, getting focused on doing the Dr. stuff is tough. Top that off with getting violently ill during the ten days you carved out to finish it up, and you get 40 percent of what you wanted to accomplish done... and not a lot of incentive to pick it back up.

I have neither done the writing I enjoy and don't enjoy (sigh), and I ended up in this pickle largely because I wrote a book on the same topic of the dissertation that the publisher who talked me into the project said HAD TO BE DONE last summer. Well, that's a great segway to...

- "So, is that book published yet?" Well..... no. And I can't really expand on things much more than that. Suffice to say, if and when the portion of the manuscript I wrote ever comes to light, I'll have more than enough fodder for a great blog post. Until then, you'll just have to wait.

- Been an incredible holiday season as it relates to need in the community. With this sort of thing I don't know if things are actually worse economically now than in the past, if people have discovered we rarely say "no" to requests for aid (particularly at Christmas), or some sort of combination of the two. Doesn't matter. We don't mind helping folks out, but the sheer number of requests this year is pretty incredible. Right now more than 100 children in the community will receive gifts and clothing from the congregation and I expect that number to grow. The amazing part is that I still haven't exhausted the volunteers willing to do the shopping and foot the bill. Pretty humbling.

- So a quarter (or so) of the NBA season is gone, and what do we know? The Lakers are heads and tails better than everyone else. The Celtics are better than last year, but Kevin Garnett's days of pogo sticking around the court are over. The Houston Rockets are proving that team work both on D and O still mean something.

And as for the Cavs.... well, it's tough to say.

As a suspected, the signings of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon were good moves on the part of Danny Ferry. Parker, while still not fully comfortable in the offense, is slowly working his way in while Moon is the kind of defender the Cavs missed against the Magic in last year's playoffs. Shaq's signing, well, is just as underwhelming now as it was then. Mo isn't having quite the year he had last year but part of that is the new faces getting worked into the mix. Varejao is still the energy guy and Big Z is slowly winding down toward the end of his contract but still effective. Hickson looks solid off the bench. Booby Gibson should have been traded about ten different times (for Stephen Jackson at least once) but leads the team in "artistic haircuts". LeBron is still LeBron, which means he's still largely carrying the team.

Nope, the big question mark for the Cavs is Delonte West. Who'd have thunk a guy they traded for as a temporary solution as a point guard would have become so critical to their chances. He's the best defender (not named LeBron) on the team. He can create his own shot off the dribble. He helps immensely with moving the ball around because he passes so well.

And yet, the guy is obviously not well. Weapons charges. Domestic abuse charges. Riding his motorcycle at over 110 mph. Bouncing off and on the active list without rhyme or reason. You can see his teammates really dig him. Without the mental issues they are loosest team in the league, enjoying one another's company and learning how to play well together. But DWest isn't well and it is the major issue hanging over that club. They're worried about the guy. If they cut Delonte loose to remove the distraction, I think it messes the team up. But if they keep him around everyone is just waiting for the other shoe to drop? Very difficult situation and one that will largely play out outside the public eye, but will define the season.

- Since we last posted there have been big changes for Brother Esq. After a couple of years in a firm with his in-laws, BrotherEsq signed on with Balyeat, Balyeat, Daily, Leahy, and Miller here in Lima. Now he's learning the ropes, hustling new business, and integrating himself into the Lima law scene. He and Melissa are expecting their second child, and we just found out they broke the Bucher Curse.... there's actually going to be a girl born into the family. We're delighted. Not only do we get to buy pink but I get to make jokes like "Are you saving up the wedding now?", "Isn't it tradition the father buys the first training bra?", and "Only fifteen or sixteen years til she dates someone like her father." It's like the best Christmas gift I ever received. In any event, they'll be moving down to Beantown sometime after the baby is born this spring. We can't wait.

- The wife has been losing weight via participation in the PRISM Ministry here at church. At first she was a little miserable to live with as she counted calories, but with the loss of weight have come little milestones that have made her happy. The latest? She can no longer shop at JC Penneys because she's now a "four tall", and they don't carry "four tall". Now she has to go out of town or buy stuff online (with her new Neiman Marcus card... WHAT?). Kudos to her. Maybe I'll join her in the new year (although right now she says I'm writing this just so y'all will leave me alone.... can you feel the love?)

- Speaking of the wife, right after I informed her that I'd be flying to LA to go see the Rose Bowl (with Eric the Buckeye, Principle Cox, Keyboard Larry, Rempe, and Dad), she informed me that she was taking a week-off by herself sometime in April. After all the travel for the dissertation, and a couple of side trips to LA for football games, seems like she's ready to cash in the accumulated chips and get out of dodge. She deserves it, however, if during a week in April you see a man and four boys at your door around dinner time, please don't turn them away.

And if you see some hot chick on a beach somewhere south, remind her we have a 20th Anniversary to celebrate this August and to do so, she has to come home first. Admittedly, this might not make much difference, but do it it anyway.

- It's been a great year at SUMC. Lots of growth (spiritual and numerical). Road races for charity, Fall Fest, Blessing of the Bikes, a great partnership with The Future Church, a fledgling ministry to area prostitutes, a fantastic Koinania Bible Study, 300 pairs of shoes for area school children, about 1.8 million pounds of food for hungry people, all kinds of cool stuff for people of all ages, the largest single financial gift made in church history...... it's been a great ride!

But as good as 2009 has been, 2010 has the possibility to be not only the most important, but community-altering year this church has ever seen. It will also be a year filled with change... some of it dramatic. It could make us, or break us, or at least make or break the current Senior Pastor's leadership. Never before have I entertained as a leader taking the degree and amount of risk I'll be taking this year.

Bring it on.

In any event, if you are in the Lima area on Christmas Eve, come join us for worship. There's a Kid-oriented service at 6:30pm, a Contemporary Candlelight service at 8:30pm, and a Traditional Candlelight service at 11pm. No strings attached, just come on out and worship with us. I'd love to see you.

And, on that note, I leave you with what is becoming my favorite Christmas song.

May there be this Christmas, peace on Earth, goodwill toward all.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Your Biggest Fan In "The Great Cloud of Witnesses"

(I'll be giving a homily at tomorrow evening's funeral service for Andia Shisler. Here's the gist of what I hope to convey to those who love her.)

Hebrews 12:1-3
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Let me first say that on behalf of her family, I want to express deep appreciation for all you for coming out to celebrate Andia's life (or in the case of this blog, chose to take the time to read the first run at tomorrow's homily). I know that coming here wasn't easy. It never is when someone so young loses their life. I know, though, that your presence is a huge lift for Andia's parents, brother, extended family, and close friends. They will never forget the gift you gave of your time and presence, so, once again, thank you.

In all honesty, I didn't know Andia all that well. I'm guessing the first time I ever met her was in the course of planning her grandfather's funeral. I'm sure she relayed a story or two about visiting her grandparents when they lived down south. Good memories I'm sure.

Probably the next time we crossed paths - outside of a handshake and hello after a worship service - was last May. Andia was a member of the Class of 2009, and she stood up front the morning we recognized all the graduating seniors from the church. I remember when I asked her to tell the congregation what she'd be doing come this fall, she said she was heading to Urbana University to play soccer and major in education.

"Major in education, and then play soccer, young lady", I corrected her. It made her and the congregation laugh.

But really, to the best of my own memory, that's about it, and as such I won't waste your time talking about a young woman who has already been properly and wonderfully honored by her family and friends in this service. To be honest, I don't think I could do her memory justice. Instead, I encourage you to remember their words, and if you knew her, share after the service with good friends your thoughts and memories of her.

You won't be sorry you did.

No, as the officiating pastor of the service I think maybe, as you sit there and look at what is for many of you, a fat guy in a funny robe, that maybe in the short time I'll be talking this evening, you have something else you want me to address. A question, rattling around in your brain and the depths of your soul that just won't go away. A one word question that's simple enough, but probably impossible to answer.


Why does an upstanding kid of 18 lose her life? Why doesn't she get to experience college life and eventually graduate, get a job, have a classroom or coach a soccer team of her own? Why didn't she get to see a little brother graduate or mess up some other WBL footplayer under the lights on a Friday night? Why doesn't she get to meet a guy, fall in love, walk an aisle, take vows, have a first dance and piece of wedding cake as she floats out the door on her way to a honeymoon? Why didn't she get a chance to be a mother and grandmother? Why must a pall hang over the heads of a family at Christmas or Thanksgiving? Why must a mother put on a strong front and why must a father face one of those moments where he's about text his daughter.... and realize again she's gone?


Maybe that's a little too graphic for some of you listening (or reading) this right now. I apologize. I didn't mean to upset anybody. It's just not too long ago I was cruising Facebook (yes, I'm old but I do have a Facebook page) and out of blue a sister of a good friend of mine, a member of the
Class of 1987, mentioned recently that it was 23 years ago he lost his life coming home from school in his orange VW Bug.

I don't think of Ed Fox nearly as often I did in the aftermath of his death. Time has a way of temporing the pain. It doesn't do away with it altogether, but it does ease the sense of loss. But every so often I wonder, "What would Ed be doing now, if...?" Would he still be in the service (he enlisted early in the Marines)? Would that sweet, sweet baritone voice still be singing in some choir or group somewhere (we were in choir together.... I loved singing with him because he was so good)? Would he be married? Divorced? Would he be a dad?

I don't think of Ed as often, but my life has gotten far more jumbled since 1986. Professions, degrees, marriage, kids, all kinds of obligations.... such is the reality after we graduate from high school. We go our own separate ways, and pretty soon people who you once thought would be your very best friends forever you now only hear from at Christmas, or the reunion. Or you add them as a Facebook friend, and at best, get semi-caught up and kinda digitally watch them from afar. You don't mean to but the everyday demands of life separate us.

While my pain has eased somewhat, however, I doubt very much this is the same case for Ed's mother and father and sister. I'm guessing they haven't been able to put the kind of distance between themselves and that terrible tragedy on West Shore Drive as I have.

23 years, and still they're left with "Why?". And, really, so are the rest of us. We've just been able to put it out of our mind... mostly.

In any event, I thought it an injustice if on this day, at this service, I didn't at least try to answer that question. To answer it for anyone who lost somebody they loved a long time ago, no matter how sharply or dimmly they remember, and for all of you mourning this young woman. I offer this day my thoughts in the hope that in the midst of the random moment next week, or next month, or 23 years from now when, "Why?", haunts you again, maybe I'll be able to leave with you something that will at least partially fill the blank.

However, before I take my best stab at "Why", I think I'd better share something else that occurred to me as I was trying to wring this out in my tiny brain...

In all my years as a minister, nobody has once, on the good days, the joyous days, the days I hope you celebrate in regards to to the best of time you spent with Andia... nobody's ever asked me, "Why was the Lord so good to me today?" Never happened. Not once.

And that goes for me too.

I mean when Max or Xavier or Eli or Toby were born I never asked why I should have been so privledged to have experienced God's grace in a way that only holding a son for the first time can convey. I never asked God why I was able to marry such a wonderful woman or work at such a great church. I never asked God why He let me experience the euphoria of the Buckeyes eeking out that win against Miami for the National Championship or watching my brother get sworn in as a lawyer or celebrating my mother being named "Teacher of the Year" in Auglaize County.

Nobody, on those days, asks "Why?". Isn't beauty and joy and love as much a mystery as death? Those moments are so fleeting, yet such an intregal part of the foundation for a meaningful life. They carry us in the darkest of days, and yet we don't really think about why God would grace us with such blessings.

I don't think, for example, that Andia walked around wondering why the Lord had blessed her with such great friends and family. I mean, when you, her posse from this past summer, snuck into the Country Club pool after hours for a swim, or when you, her family, charged across an open field on a snowmobile, or when any of you who coached or played with Andia on a soccer team experienced the bond that can only come when a group of individuals work for one goal and one purpose, blessed her life I don't think Andia sat around wondering, "Gee whiz, dude.... why is God been so good to me?"

That wasn't her way.

Don't misunderstand me... I believe she cared about the Lord. She was no saint (I heard the stories shared at the prayer vigil in her honor Sunday night here and I heard there were other stories that couldn't be shared in a church... I got a few of those from my past too), but saints are few and far between. She loved the Lord, of this I am sure, I just don't think, given what I've heard about her that on the joyous of joyful moments Andia sat around wondering why God let her be so blessed. In fact, if I understand her correctly, on those days I think she just tried in her own way to magnify the blessing.

And, if we're gonna be completely honest here, I don't think on her darkest days or moments Andia sat around moping about where God was. If the team lost, I have to think Andia thought the team's effort just wasn't good enough, or that everyone needed to work harder.

Or, God help the fool who picked on her little brother - that was her job and no one elses - but if he had missed a key tackle or block that helped cost the team the game I don't think she would look for some great extistential meaning. She'd give him a hug, and tell him to get his ass into the weight room. Am I right?

When she lost someone she loved - like her grandfather or her "nana" - it didn't send her into such a funk that she became unable to laugh or love or poke fun or celebrate life. That's not what I heard of the one called Mandia who left a teacher a bag of Hershey's kisses in his school mailbox and taped one of her friend's pictures to the bag.

But, once again, I digress. Given all of this, all this stuff about God and Andia and joy and pain and winning and losing and life and death, here's my best guess at the question of "Why did Andia Shisler lose her life?"

I don't know. Why one person gets into a horrible accident and walks away with a scratch and another doesn't walk away is more than just a physics problem. It's a mystery, much like life, fate, free will, the afterlife, God, Heaven.... there's a reason why we say in this Christian walk a person has to have faith. Faith is what you have when your counting on beyond what the sciences or rationality can explain.

Given what I've learned about her, however, Andia wouldn't want you sitting around moping about "Why?". For the blessings in life we receive, and the trials we must endure. They are both great mysteries, the genesis of which is convoluded and impossible to understand. How we deal with them though is defined by what we believe about what we gather is the meaning behind everything.

I cannot speak for people of other faiths. To do so would be me speaking in ignorance. I can speak as a Christian leader, and in our tradition we believe that good can come out of all things, both good and bad. That we can do all things, persevere through all things, and still bring life in the aftermath of all things, through Christ who strengthens us.

That's what Paul tells us in the book of Hebrews. Whether the day is the greatest ever, or the worst nightmare we can imagine, our eyes need to stay fixed on the tape at the end of the race. On a prize that's greater than a medal or trophy or ring. A prize that can only be granted by the Master, who has established the criteria for worthiness through his own devotion, body, blood, and life. A prize given after we have lived this life as faithfully as we were able, given our limitations and circumstances, and we stand on the other side, before our Maker, who asks us to bow our head, and instead of a medal says:

"Well done, good and faithful servant."

Well done the job you did to love others - your family, friends, those who make you uncomfortable, and even those who when you think of them create a pit in the bottom of your stomach.

Well done the job you did loving the Lord, praying even when you weren't sure what to pray, trusting even when your world was shattered, giving even when it seemed like there was nothing no matter how far down you reached, to give.

Well done, even in the midst of your sin and imperfection, the job of inviting God's perfect will to be on earth as it is in Heaven.

Well done, says the Master, who knows what it feels like to be rejected. Who knows the sting of scorn, the burning that comes only with ridicule, and the grief and mourning that comes only with death.

Well done from the One who too, in his darkest hour, asked "Why? Why, Papa are You foresaking me too?"

Feel free to ask "Why?", just don't let it overwhelm you. Depress you. Defeat you. Think of Jesus, who overcame death, and remember that promise is yours also.

And, just one last thing....

Remember, that as Jesus comes along side you, celebrating your victories, and washing your feet whilst laying hands upon you in your defeats, that another one sits watching. One who no longer wonders why, and won't tolerate letting you use her to make excuses for letting your life come to a standstill.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

What a wonderful image Paul leaves us with today. Us, surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses". Because I have a relationship with this congregation that spans almost two decades, when I stand in this place - whether it be in the Centrum or Sanctuary, or outside during Fall Fest or on the shore of Sims' pond at the Sea of Galilee Party, or wherever it is ministry happens - I have this sense that we're being watched. Names like Pat and Helen Price, Gail Goodwin, Stan Weller, Dwight and Mary Becker.... names that might not mean much to you, but for me, and many others who knew and loved them, but names of people who lived and sacrificed for this family of faith. And I think personally of names meaningful to me - Dean, Fred, Carol, Dick, and yes, Ed Fox - sitting in that great assembly rooting me, and so many others, on as we strive to bring love and light into this world.

There she sits. Not just another face in the crowd. She's watching, pulling for you to honor the Lord by doing your best. Encouraging you to give away your mourning, and letting the Author of Life turing into dancing. You stumble, and she makes a weird noise, laughs at you, and tells you to keep pushing.

Give back like the young woman who wanted to mold middle school students. Give freely, like the young woman who would give the shirt off her back for her friends, and as she grew in grace those in need.

Ask "Why?", but ask the "Why?" Andia, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt right now is begging you to ask:

"Why am I sitting here moping about what isn't, when I could be celebrating what is, while living a life worthy of one day being given one of those seats in that great assembly of witnesses where I can root on those I love for all eternity?"

Why? I don't know. But you'd better not hang your head and blaim her. You'll have to answer for that someday, because she's watching. Rooting you on.

"Here's a hug. Now get your ass back in the weight room."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

GLEE: A Perspective From A Lima Loser

Ever since The West Wing ended I haven't watched much network TV. I never started watching "Lost" or "House" or "30 Rock" or even "The Office". I like "The Office" but I didn't catch on to it until seeing the reruns on basic cable. That's what happens when you rarely turn on the TV before 10pm. The downside is you have no idea what other people are watching (although, admittedly, given the decline in network TV, I don't know many people who watch network TV, or at least talk about it... except for Dancing With the Stars and American Idol. Man, I can't get away from those shows in the office the days after they've aired. The ladies in the office beat them to the point I just want dig my ear drums with a rusty fork), but the upside is that when they're finally on at the time you watch TV, they're all new to you. Network TV, was for all intensive purposes, dead to me.

And then there was GLEE.

When I heard that FOX show which features William McKinley High School, the setting for their new comedy/musical hybrid, fictionally in Lima, I couldn't help but be curious. How was the town I live in and call home going to be portrayed?

Well, I think after the airing of a few episodes, we have our answer. It's no surprise the metaphor of Lima is really being used, at least to this point, as the kind of place that's good to be from. In a recent episode, for example, when a teacher/football coach confronts a female guidance counselor about her crush on a married music teacher (and yes, I did wonder if I had stepped back into my college days when we gathered to watch Days of Our Lives), he makes it a point to tell her that she should really start dating him because he was a "minority" with tenure and "couldn't be fired" so she "couldn't do better in this one-horse town".

I disagree. We have many more horses here. That's the hole we're going to fill though... the place where we're all Lost In Middle America.

In any event, this portrayal of the city as not the end of the world, but a place where you could see it was driven home in this week's episode. The show caused a small ruckus locally when the student characters were talking about not being "Lima Losers". I had just turned on the show right before the line was used multiple times, and I even Facebooked about it when it happened.

Sideline: The problem with Facebook, and all written digital communication in general, is that it's impossible to know the intent of the person who has transmitted the words. When I wrote whatever it was I wrote (something to the effect that "Hey GLEE, in our town we're all Lima Losers!), my intent was light-hearted. Imagine my surprise when some when a small debate began to erupt over why the producers had to slam Lima, or how they were just trying to reflect the feelings of teens from every small town or city about wanting to get out of dodge. Whatever. I was just representin', yo! LIMA LOSER IN THE HOUSE!!! I mean, how often does our town get mentioned on a bigger stage? Not often. Just wanted to acknowledge we're getting a little attention, and not much else.

But the whole "Lima Loser" thing, and with it the realization of how Lima and all it represents is going to be used creatively, is hitting home. I heard about it in my office, at the gas station, and it was even mentioned on the phone with a "Harvest for the Hungry" corporate partner this morning. Most of the locals only heard about the "Lima Loser" comment from their kids (which I imagine locally GLEE has about a 99% of all teens watching it, if only because they know it's about teens from Lima, Ohio.... a few of them are probably thinking they'll see a friend which is either sad or funny) but no matter. It's rankled the locals. If there isn't an article about the negative portrayal of the community in The Lima News within a week or two I'll be shocked. I can already see Dan Beck using the whole "Lima Losers" thing as a part of his mayoral campaign as an impetus for change. This is the way it is when there's not much else locally to sway your attention.

But I digress... What, if anything, should a simple Midwestern pastor make of all this?

Well, first and foremost, the attitude of the show regarding towns like ours I think is a pretty accurate reflection of the national mood. Once upon a time people grew up in Lima dreaming of working in a local factory, opening up a local medical practice, or starting their own business. It was the kind of place where you found multiple generations of families living in close proximity together, and an attitude that while Lima wasn't the most exciting place in the world to live, given the chance to make a decent living and find an affordable house, it was a pretty good place to raise a family and live.

Now, while most of us do have family here and still feel this a good place to raise a family, we only feel that way provided you can find good work. Over the last thirty years the city itself has emptied at an alarming rate, the population declining from 50,000+ at the zenith of the late 70's, to now about 30,000+. While some of that decline actually was just transfer growth as folks moved into the burbs (full disclosure: I live in the Village of Fort Shawnee, and work in Shawnee Township, which are burbs), the attitude toward the city amongst the locals, and those who were once locals has changed decidedly since the early 70's. Closed plants, the communal rot caused by the drug epidemic/unemployment/poverty which began in 80's, empty houses, a dying downtown..... Lima is no different than many, many other Midwestern towns and cities that have been hammered by the twin whammies of the "Global Economy" (and hence the decline of American manufacturing) and all social problems that come from urban decay.

Buffalo. Youngstown. Muncie. Lansing. Flint. Pittsburgh. Akron. Toledo. The list goes on and on of Midwestern cities that have been taking a beating for more than three decades, and adapting to a new normal where the feeling that its all just slowly winding down is just a part of life. That's why when someone did the "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos" and posted them on YouTube, they touted the city's primary economic engine as being "LeBron James", it's main export as "Crippling Depression", and as the place where you could "buy a house for same price as a VCR", and we all laughed because the end of the video touts the town as "at least not being Detorit".

Detroit is a place you live when you have no other options, or you can benefit from the depressed real estate market. That's all of us. We lived by the automobile, now we die by it. We're hanging onto to dear life the industry still here, embracing the emerging health industry that's taking care of our aging populations, and figuring out this love/hate relationship we have with the service sector, which predominantly consists of big box stores. Right now, for example, the town is in mourning over the loss of our Anderson's store. People are describing it like a friend with a terminal illness. Tomorrow, though, if Target said they were coming, I'm sure we'd throw a parade. It'd be a bigger deal than, well.... GLEE. So, in other words, the pay in the service sector sucks, but we certainly like having available to us cheap merchandise mass-produced overseas.

So GLEE's portrayal of our fair city as the metaphor/representation of 21st Century Midwestern America isn't all that big of a surprise. I mean, you can't buy a house here for a price of a VCR, but if Brother Esq ever decided to move down here he could buy the former Roosevelt Elementary School for the price of a high end 2010 Ford Taurus. Such is our reality, and such is the general perception of the rest of the country of us, and cities like ours.

The second, and final thing I'll say about this as a pastor, is that where I think the perception of the city is effecting my theology and preaching is that where you have chaos and emptiness, there lay opportunity for creative and entrepreneurial souls. Because God is a creative God (I mean you gotta be creative to come up with the duck billed platypus or stratus clouds), and always is creating, and we are reflection of that God, there's a "second act" brewing for a town like ours.

Maybe this more a reflection of the "American optimism" the rest of the world seems to envy (and miss in the aftermath of 9/11) than of some well-thought out theology, but when I think of the city I can't help but remember the story of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a member of the Judah's court held in captivity by Darius the Great, the king of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah was Darius' cup-bearer, which might not seem like that big a deal but was actually a position of some importance. Remember, despotic or non-democratically established leaders only step down in the event 1) they decide to for the purpose of installing their own heir or 2) they die. It wasn't uncommon for these leaders to die for reasons other than old age. Assassination, and particularly death by poisoning, was a popular way for a rival (sometimes your own relative) to move your caboose out of the throne.

The cup-bearer's job was making sure the king's cup was hemlock-free. This meant the cup-bearer served as a form of intel for the court. He had to be aware of those on staff or in the family who might want the king "off-ed", and plan according. Unusual it was for a member of a conquered court to serve in this capacity, but by all accounts (in the book of Nehemiah), Nehemiah was the kind of person - high integrity, honesty, moral - you'd want manning the job.

Had he wanted to, Nehemiah could have bided his time and lived pretty well in Darius' court, but when he heard about the state of his home, Jerusalem, and how it was still in ruins many years after being conquered by the Babylonians, it grieved him. So, with everything to lose, Nehemiah risked his position and place on behalf of his city. He leveraged his position with Darius to secure financing, protection, and ultimately a chance to lead the reconstruction on the ground. He had much to overcome - those living in the city, for example, had to sleep, work, and protect the slowly rising walls round the clock against local rivals who didn't want to see Jerusalem re-emerge as a power - but eventually the city was reconstructed.

The fact is most young people grow up in Lima just wanting to someday get out. Others growing up elsewhere don't generally dream of coming to live and work in a declining mid-size town marred by regional infighting and petty politics. But somewhere, someone, like Nehemiah, sees opportunity, not just for themselves and their family, but for others. Maybe they're fueled by a sense of justice or ambition or profit or a love for God and others... or some hodgepodge of all those things or more. That's why some people have moved here, and why others of us have moved back.

We love the city maybe not as much as God loves the city, but we still love it and see the possibilities.

God is a creating God, who has created us in his own image. For those looking to create, the canvas of places like Lima only becomes increasingly attractive if only because they get to paint that which makes their heart sing.

Lima, then, might be a place for losers, but losers are only people who have competed and came up on the wrong side of the ledger. Or winners who got knocked down for awhile. The importance is to keep praying, competing, believing, and staying open to coaches and players who are able to turn the team around.

The Lord is not done with us yet, hence, much like the GLEE kids, all of us losers won't stop believin'.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thank You Phat Pastor Nation!

I barely beat the two ladies behind me pushing their kids in strollers, but still finished. Thank you all for your support. We received an incredible last minute donation from Christian in Colorado that really put it over the top last night... $2850 from the Phat Pastor Nation!

Thank you, everyone, for all the love you've shown to the people of Haiti. In January and February we'll show some of the ways your money has been put to work.

Once again, thank you and God Bless!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hands for Haiti 5k/Half-Marathon - THE LAST DAY FOR DONATIONS

The last video. You can see the donate button at the bottom of this post. It'll be operable until late tonight. Thank You all for your support of the Hands for Haiti 5k/Half-Marathon, and if you haven't donated yet, join the legion that is Phat Pastor Nation, and make a pledge.

Yesterday's "Who Is My Neighbor?"

Here's yesterday's video. What would an appeal be like if I were one of the old style TV evangelists? Hmmmm......

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hands for Haiti 5k - DAY 4 Video

Who is my neighbor?

Here's yesterday's video. What would an appeal be like if I were one of the old style TV evangelists? Hmmmm......

and here's yesterdays cause, well, just because...

Only three days left until the big race. Click here for more details if you'd like to walk up to register either Friday evening or Saturday morning at the race. Send checks to support this effort to:

Shawnee UMC
2600 Zurmehly Rd.
Lima OH. 45806

All proceeds will go to our work in Haiti. Not a dime to administration or church ops, but rather every penny into vaccinations, medicine, medical personnel, feeding projects, water well repair, and all those things that make life more bearable in a place where it is very difficult.

Thanks again to all who have supported the Phat Pastor's effort to raise money for the people of Haiti.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hands For Haiti 5k/Half-Marathon (DAY 2 VIDEO NOW POSTED)

This Saturday, for the first time in many, many years (am thinking it was a 10K in Lima my Sophomore year of high school) I'll be "running" in a 5K. My training has been spotty (at best) but I'm committed to making this run.

You see, all the proceeds from the race are going to SUMC's medical mission work in Northern Haiti. Right now, we are talking with International Child Care to open a clinic in a remote area of the country that is often cut-off during the rainy season. The idea is to have a clinic with small staff functioning year-round so that medical help will be available regardless of whether or not roads are open. We also sponsor day-clinics manned by volunteers from the church a few weeks every year with our partner, Living Hope Mission.

You can support this by sponsoring me. Just click on the PayPal button above. Support the phatest pastor "running" (there may be more walking than running just so you know) either with a buck per mile (total = $3), or a buck per kilometer (total = $5), or give whatever you want. Use your credit card and make it easy on yourself. If that doesn't work, just send a check to:

Shawnee UMC
c/0 The Phat Pastor
2600 Zurmehly Rd.
Lima, Ohio 45806

If you wish, you may receive a statement for tax purposes. All expenses for this race are covered so 100% of your money will go to purchase drugs, supplies, and other medical whatnot for Haitians in need.

NOTE: There is a prize for the person who raises the most money at this race, but I have self-disqualified myself from winning (just to keep things above board).

To find out more about the race, or to get info about entering yourself as a walk-up this weekend, just click here on the official website.

Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fruit of the Spirit

(just a little primer for tomorrow's sermon)

For most of my adult life I have spent the vast majority of my time as a pastor and Christian working on becoming more knowledgeable. I'm finishing up a second post-graduate degree (Dr. Bucher, can I ask you a question about my back? Uh, no, but if you want a smooth transition when your pastor leaves give me a call.). I've spent I don't know how many hours chasing down info on living in the Roman Empire or doing cross-cultural studies in the world of ancient Mesopotamia.

(Don't mess wit my potamia!)

I've chased down meanings on Hebrew and Aramaic words. I've compared Marcus Borg (great cultural study of the Roman world) with N.T. Wright (another great cultural study of the Roman world who disagrees with Borg, but yet they remain mutual admirers), deconstructed dispensationalism, via the Internet/DVD/books tried to understand the world from an archeologist's eyes, and generally burned a lot of hours in various seminary libraries (I used to hide in the dark in a cubicle at Methesco so I could study all night after it closed). When it comes to the Bible, theology, and the sociology of various Christian movements, I think I've really grown since I walked the line at Lima Stadium as a member of Lima Senior High's Class of 1987.

But, I've got to be honest with you, in a lot of respects I've wondered if somehow I've missed the boat? Or more aptly, taken my eyes off the prize for something less worthy.

Shortly after Christ's death - within a hundred years or so anyway - a subculture began to develop within the Christian movement. These folks, who became known as "Gnostics" (from the Greek, "gnosis" meaning "knowledge"). For my purposes today, it's not really all that important to describe exactly what the Gnostics believed. If you go to the fount of all truth and knowledge - Wikipedia - you'll find (in part) this definition:

a form of revealed, esoteric knowledge through which the spiritual elements of humanity are reminded of their true origins within the superior Godhead, being thus permitted to escape materiality

Gnostics believed that God had implanted knowledge in us, and the creation, that if could be discovered would free us from our present reality. All you had to do was apply yourself to seeking out this "hidden knowledge" with various teachers using texts devised by the same teachers (or those who taught the teachers) who had made these amazing discoveries, and you too could be free of the pain, struggle, and uncertainty that life throws at you.

In the fourth century AD, the Gnostics, recognized as mystic crackpots, were largely banished to the fringe of the Christian experience. And, quite frankly, with good reason. I don't have the time to talk about all the stuff Gnostics taught but the "accounts of Jesus Christ" they wrote were product of "mystic visions" and "out of body experiences". When you start giving "historical accounts" received in the throws of a mystic vision the same authority as that of an eye-witness, problems will quickly arise. Hence, Orthodox Christianity disposed of Gnosticism long, long ago. And while the "Gnostic Gospels" pop up every so often as "proof" the Christian church (meaning mainly the Roman Catholic Church) is trying to keep the "truth" away from people (i.e. The DaVinci Code), the really boring truth about them is that they were just too loopy to be believed.

But while the Gnostics may have lost of the battle, I'm becoming increasingly alarmed that maybe they're winning the war. Oh, I don't mean that there's a growing subculture who believe that Jesus was neither "human" or "divine", but some other substance that was neither. The pursuit of knowledge as the end of the Christian spiritual journey however, has become more our focus than it probably should. Knowledge learned in the right way, with the right bent, from the right perspective. We're no longer obsessed, necessarily, with figuring out the secret as to how to be freed in this life from our physical selves (although I could stand to be freed from about 100 pounds of my physical self), but it seems like every Christian movement out there right now is trying to convince you that there is a more concentric circle of understanding hidden from everyone else they possess... and all have to do is go plant your flag in their soil long enough until that knowledge becomes yours.

That's the essence of Gnosticism - the belief that you have "secret knowledge" others don't possess that is essential for others to know before they know the "truth".

No part of this culture of ours is escaping the Gnostic curse right now. Politics, religion, spirituality, finance, a person's emotional well-being.... all you need are the right "facts" and all will be well. Even the church, even us pastors, even us pastors who are up the occasional night agonizing over whether or not that last sermon sold you bunk and not the "Gospel", are just looking for the right source. The right scholar. The right theology. The right facts in the hope we'll set you free.

We are a people obsessed with knowledge, and for good reason. Doesn't matter what you do for a living, if you don't know how to do what you are doing, you're toast. For example, do you want drive over a bridge built by someone who understands civil engineering or by some guy making up its construction on the fly?

Put that concrete wherever, just use enough to make sure that if a fuel truck goes over this bad boy it won't collapse.

There's a reason why a friend of mine who repairs cars for a living put up this little ditty in his garage:

Labor Rates: $50 an hour for all repair work. $100 an hour if you first tried fixing it yourself.

In our world, now maybe more than ever in history, knowledge is the key to a better life. When I was in college, until the year Aimee and I were married, I roomed with Mike. Mike and I both moved to Lima in the fifth grade. From a very young age Mike was unusually focused on his studies. By his own definition, mot the biggest or smartest guy, Mike worked at his studies like few other people I've ever met. He came from a family of modest means, and knew that whatever way he was gonna make in the world was largely going to be the product of his own blood, sweat, and tears. Most of us don't learn this until later. Mike seemed to get it as far back as junior high school. In high school and the three years we roomed together at college, I suspect that for every hour I studied, Mike studied three or four hours. About the only time I saw him without a book when when he was eating, badgering us to play him in racquetball, when he'd play the occasional video game (on the old "Commodore 64"), or when he slept. On Fridays and Saturdays while the rest of Miami was blowing off steam, Mike was volunteering at the local hospital ER, watching doctors and nurses piece together Miami students who blew themselves up with the steam.

Mike was obsessed with gaining knowledge, and for good reason. He wanted to go to medical school, which is not easy to get into, and become a doctor. I'm glad to say that all of his hard work paid off, and now he has a successful dermatology practice. Given all my Lima Senior classmates - those who graduated and those who didn't - I'm sure if you ask those whose lives haven't ended up where they wanted them to be, they'd tell you they wish - in an echo of an old Gatorade campaign - in junior and senior high school, they'd been more like Mike.

To a degree, the old adage, "Knowledge is Power", has gotta lot of truth to it.

But while in this spiritual journey "knowledge" is most definitely important, it is only a means to an end, and not an end to itself. It's believed now by many scholars that in the early church, before you could become a member you'd have to go through a three year period of study where you'd be challenged to commit the life and certain teaching of Jesus to memory. Given the lack of books (let alone the Internet) this was essential in passing down the story and essence of the faith. The Gospels themselves are largely considered to be the product of different faith communities who at some point decided to commit what they were learning to memory.

But learning was only one aspect of the Christan experience, and not even the most important one at that. As opposed to "learning" about Jesus' Gospel, the greater emphasis was on "becoming" the person Jesus called us to be.

Never was emphasis on "becoming" greater than "learning" than in the writings of Paul. The one who wrote

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."

This is a man who once prided himself on "being a Jew amongst Jews". The smartest religious teacher and leader around, fluent not only in the Hebrew Bible and the tradition of Jewish Law, but also in the Greek disciplines of logic, rhetoric, and philosophy. At one time, Paul's greatest point of pride was that in a room full of very, very smart people, he was arguably the smartest. And because he was the smartest, he was looked to as a leader. Paul, we're told, gave those who stoned Stephen, the first Christian, the spiritual authority to do so. When he was blinded by Jesus he was on his way to Damascus, he was on his way to work with local Jewish leaders in a non-Jewish dominated town to start stemming the growing wave of Christian converts. If the Apostles were taking the message of Christ beyond Jerusalem, Paul was being targeted by those who opposed this message to stomp it out wherever necessary.

It's not surprising then, after Paul's conversion that while he was concerned with new Christan disciples learning the Gospel, he was more preoccupied with them "becoming more like Christ". Or as he put it, becoming someone directed by the Holy Spirit to "produce fruit": Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The fact is, for better or worse, there is no "secret knowledge" in some book or possessed by some "wise teacher" that will produce this kind of fruit. With apologizes to the lady who wrote the book, "The Secret", visualizing who want to be until the day it happens might sound really great (and possesses a grain of truth - it's not a bad thing to have a vision for your life), but it's hardly a secret. I can point you to a thousand other books that say the same thing but weren't marketed nearly as well. While we can learn more about the world around us, about ourselves, and others, in the end Solomon, while admittedly sounding pretty cynical, is right - there's nothing new under the sun. God has given us scripture, the ability to reason, a Christian tradition where we can see were mistakes were made, and our own experience so that we might not just be smarter, but rather, fruitful.

I mean all the stuff listed in Galatians 5 which is the list of that which is the opposite of spiritual fruit:

sexual immorality
impure thoughts
eagerness for lustful pleasure
participation in demonic activities
outbursts of anger
selfish ambition
the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group
wild parties

you can be the most knowledgeable bloke around and still behave badly and engage in all these things. One of the brightest, smartest students I ever came across while I was at Miami was a witch who offered to help teach me spells to help my love life (which I decided to give a pass). Another classmate of mine who graduated "magna cum-laude" in 1991 and he was a libertarian who not only got high a lot but thought everyone who wasn't with him was self-delusioned nut. Seems like there's a story every single day of someone you wouldn't expect - either due to their education, background, or standing - who has engaged any one or more of the above behaviors and is now paying for it. All the athletic prowess and ability in the world isn't gonna stop people from wearing "Hide Your Beagle, Vick's An Eagle" t-shirts.

It's not enough to know about being a disciple. The end is becoming one.

What's more I have met, heard, read, and talked with plenty of people who knew a lot of Bible, church history, and theology - who could run rings around the rest of us apologetically - who were, for lack of a better term, jerks. Of all the profs, for example, I've had in the two seminaries where I studied, eight ran away from their spouses with a student in their class. EIGHT!

I remember this one time I went to a conference for church leaders: we ended up sitting at a table with a lead pastor whose ministry I had always admired from afar. I had read his books and listened to his sermons. He was brilliant. I thought the world of him....

and then, I met him.

That was a long time ago, but since then I've had enough other personal experience with big-time pastors that I have this theory that you almost have to be ego-centric jerk to be able to grow a church to an epic size. But this was the first time I had experienced this first hand, and I remember really being torn in that moment. Since then, the guy has taken a lot of lumps, and I can't say I'm surprised. Even a lot of knowledge about the one who calls us to "go forth and produce fruit that lasts" doesn't necessary add up to a life where the right kind of fruit is produced.

Love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The fact is I know plenty of folks who don't know why e=mc2 or post-milleniallism or who the biblical character Tamar was (she was simultaneously the daughter-in-law of Judah, and also the mother of his children.... not quite the family-values you thought were in the Bible, eh?) who produce more fruit than the Bing Cherry trees in all of that state up north.

All that to say this.... is your spiritual journey - a life of study, worship, prayer, service, personal discipline - is it making you more fruitful. And if it isn't, why?

Or put it another way... are you learning more about God, or making peace with God? There's a big difference.

Jesus calls us in John 15 to "remain in my love... I have told you this so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!" He calls us, in our "becoming" a disciple and in working with others in their "becoming" a disciple, to the realization that it's more important to
dwell with Jesus long enough to see the world through his eyes than knowing the right way or the right things. That's the difference between knowing that people who mourn are blessed because now that the Messiah has come they will be comforted, and comforting those who mourn because in your heart the Messiah has come.

Hence, while I think its a good idea to learn all you can, calibrate what you are learning by asking the question, changed a little than when the old lady said something similar in a Wendy's commercial, but still yet applicable..

Where's the fruit? Where's the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

19 Years

19 years ago today, Aimee and I were married at Trinity United Methodist Church here in Lima. Here are nineteen memories of that day...

1) It was hot. Damn hot. 102 degrees in the shade hot, and ours was the very last wedding done at Trinity before they installed air conditioning. What's more, our reception was at the UAW Hall which also wasn't air conditioned. To top it off, I chose the tuxedos that previous winter. They were wool.

Did I say the day was hot?

2) The church was so hot (I know I'm beating this to death, but this a great story) that the groomsman filled the balloons with helium in an air conditioned room of the church, and when they brought them into the non-air conditioned foyer they began to, one-by-one, explode. It was like Bill Nye The Science Guy showed up at our wedding.

3) Til this day I say that we had the best rehearsal dinner, ever. Instead of some restaurant, we decided to do our RD at Sherwood Pool. We set up the grub and beverages in the clubhouse, played tunes on the stereo, and everyone - the wedding party, our family, all our college friends, the pastor and his family - went swimming. Lots of fun into the wee hours.

4) The Allen County Fair used be held earlier than it is now. In 1990, August 18th happened to be the day it opened. The fair parade used to (it may still.... I have no idea) march down Market Street and turn down West, out to Elm, and onto the Fairgrounds. Unfortunately for us, Trinity was, and is, located at the corner of Market and West, meaning we couldn't get to the church cause the REACT guys wouldn't let us cross the street, interrupting said parade. We all ended up at the church quite late, and my lovely bride was hysterical because we were so far behind schedule (we did all pics, including the ones together, before the ceremony). Mike Ayres pushed the picture schedule though, and everything ended up OK. However, if you want to see my wife frown, just say "Fair Parade".

5) Aimee was a music major at Miami (of Ohio, of course.... Miami was a University when Florida belonged to Spain) which meant we had some of the most fabulous music before and during our ceremony. We had a harp. We had an a-list organist. We quartets and soloists. They were all really, really good.

6) To be honest, I don't remember much about the actual wedding ceremony. I remember Aimee was beautiful and the church was pretty full - which was confirmed by a picture taken by Mike from the rear balcony of the crowd - and not much else.

Just a quick aside - I wasn't at all happy with Mike Ayers the day of the ceremony because he made us pose for about a million pictures, but I was thumbing through our wedding album the other day and the guy did a tremendous job. To think, that was when he was first getting started. Couldn't recommend him higher.

Back to the ceremony.... I'm sure my wife remembers more of it than I do. I just remember feeling faint while Dave led us through our vows, shaking while trying to put the ring on her finger, and how her brown eyes sparkled during the ceremony.

7) One of my favorite memories of that day was after the service, when people had released the balloons that had survived, and we had climbed into a limo, Aimee and I were alone, just riding around in the air-conditioning drinking champagne. Just the two of us, a couple of kids, our whole lives in front of us. I think of that moment, and it still makes me smile.

8) The DJ we used was instructed to play music from every era, including Big Band. I can still see my wife's grandparents, and my Uncle Paul and Aunt Eileen dancing to the sounds of Glenn Miller. They're all gone now so I'm glad I at least have those memories, and that for a moment we gave them that bit of joy.

9) It should be stated that I did not shove cake into my wife's face. She did get into a cake fight with my brother-in-law and uncle later, but I was a gentleman. Besides, that cake was pretty good. No sense wasting it.

10) There was an open bar at our reception, and given how hot it was that day people took full advantage of Aimee's family's hospitality. Fortunately it was so hot that all the alcohol was sweated out of people's systems before they could get stupid. My college friends, in particular, since the hotel they were staying in was next door and could be reached by foot, enjoyed the libations. I remember in particular Steve Skeels going from table to table picking up half-filled champagne bottles (after the toast, which was the cue for most of the folks at the reception to take off and find a place to cool off) and taking them to table where "The Gang" was sitting. We have this great shot of a group of them sitting at a table that is filled with green bottles. They were the first to arrive at the reception, and the last to leave.

11) We were both in college so we had no money. That summer I had worked two jobs (surveyor at Dad's firm during the day and as a carnie selling corn dogs at county fairs at night and on weekends) as had Aimee (as an employee of the city at the Children's Art Park by day, and a waitress at Frisch's by night) and all the cash went to buy our first home - 14x70 Mobile Home in the scariest trailer-park in Southwest Ohio. Her aunt and uncle, Sharon and Frank Dugan, let use their cottage in Galena, Illinois for our honeymoon (which is really nice), but as for cash while traveling, we had very little. The plan was to do a "dollar dance" at the reception and use that as our spending money. It did raise a couple hundred bucks, which was a relief. At least now we could buy enough gas to get us from Lima to Galena, and back.

As we were leaving though, my Uncle Fred pulled us aside and slipped us a wad of cash that he told us he and Aunt Kathy didn't want brought back to Ohio. Hence, without the Dugans and the Diehls, our honeymoon would have been a night at the local Howard Johnson's. Once again, much thanks. Much, much thanks.

12) As you might imagine, this whole affair wasn't small. Big wedding ceremony. Big reception. Big bills. I don't want to think what Aimee's folks spent on this day, and we'll probably never fully know. Aimee's mom was the force behind making the thing as big as big could be, and in the end she spared no expense. If you knew her, you know she was that way. This was a woman who spent untold dollars on playground equipment and toys of all kinds so that her grandkids would beg their parents to take them to grandmother's house. When it came to throwing a party and getting her family together, Carol Allen knew no budget.

She and Bryant weren't too keen on the idea of our getting married so young and still in school. The only thing I can remember about them on that day was her mom pulling me aside right before we left the reception, and making me promise for about the hundredth time that I would make sure Aimee would finish her degree.

Two years later Carol would give me a big kiss on the cheek as Aimee walked the line at Millett Hall.

Thanks Carol for going in the hole for us, and really, throughout your life, for all of us who you loved. I wish I could thank you in person... someday (hopefully not soon, but someday nonetheless) I will.

13) Before the wedding my college roommate sat me down and tried to explain to me that I was making a big mistake and destroying my life. Getting married... living in a trailer... still in school... Mike was convinced that I was about to make a mistake of epic proportions. Surely, very soon, I'd be working the night shift at the local 7-11, supporting a wife and three kids while still short 12 credit hours of a college degree. Needless to say, I was not pleased. I had included him in my wedding party (we'd been roommates for three years and friends since the fifth grade), and if the tuxes hadn't been ordered I would have un-invited him.

It's good for him I didn't.

At my wedding, Mike met my wife's Maid of Honor, Jenne Gradwahl. One year later they were married, setting up their home in a newly acquired mobile home, getting ready for Mike to begin his first year of medical school at Wright State. Now they're living in Findlay, happily married, where Dr. Cairns has a dermatology practice.

You can't make this stuff up.

14) During the reception our friends covered my car with condoms and wedding cake. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

15) I remember that one of the highlights of the day was my sister-in-law being present for the ceremony and reception. Not long before we were married, Michelle had experienced the death of her infant son, John (or as he is still known Jammer). Needless to say, she didn't really feel much like celebrating, and who can blame her. We never met the little guy (he was born on a military base in Germany) and we still feel his loss. We know it was tough for Michelle to show up that day because it was the first time after Jammer was gone tshe had to be around her extended family. I mean, how many family members made her answer questions about that tragedy that day I do not know, but one time would have been too many.

I will tell you this though, Aimee was elated to see her sister at her wedding. It really made her day. She still talks about it. Now, nineteen years and four sons later, we know how big, and tough it was for her to be there.

Much love from us both, Shell. Much love and prayer.

16) We left the reception early and stopped by her folks house which is where our suitcases were waiting for us. I remember peeling that tuxedo off me, taking a shower and sinking into shorts, t-shirt, and a pair of flip-flops. Never had I felt so relieved in all my life.

17) Our first night married was spent at a Marriott in Fort Wayne. I reserved "the honeymoon suite", which they assured me they had. It was really was just a regular room that included a fruit basket and a bottle of champagne. I remember not telling anyone, including Aimee, which hotel we were staying at or even what city we were stopping in for the night for fear of what my friends might do with the info. Considering some of the stuff they did to future members of "The Gang" (early morning phone calls from area DJ's and the like) who got hitched, I consider this the smartest wedding move I made, besides popping the question.

(Anyway, it was a lot smarter than those wool tuxes, that's for sure.)

18) You know it's been nineteen years you've been married when you're having trouble remembering nineteen things about your wedding day.

19) The most lasting memory I have now is of two horny, clueless kids who ignored all the wise advice people were giving them, and got married anyway. Six months later we were miserable, hating one another, barely eeking by, living in a trailer with a cat who couldn't stand either of us. Our transition to adulthood took place that first year of marriage, and it hit us with the force and impact that could rival that of a 100 ton press.

It took a year, but we worked a lot of the kinks. Since then there have been ups and downs. Sometimes one person's up was the other person's down. Along the way, though, our love has endured.

We actually celebrated our anniversary last Saturday. We did what has always been our favorite date - dinner and a movie. Back in the early days of marriage this consisted of Bruno's pizza, two cans of root beer, and "Student Night" at the Princess Theater.... and not all that often at that. Saturday we enjoyed the Salad Bar at Ruby Tuesdays and "Bandslam" (a John Hughes-esque throwback that took us back to the glory days of 80's movies). Afterward, we stopped by Happy Daz and got ice cream before we picked up our two youngest from their grandparents.

As we left ice cream place, a young couple - two teenagers - sat by a window next to the exit, making eyes and giggling at one another over a couple of milkshakes. Aimee and I couldn't help but look at one another and laugh. Seems like 0nly yesterday we were teenagers making eyes at one another over breadsticks at Noble Romans. We joked later that we didn't know whether or not to tell those kids to treasure the moment or run like hell.

I'm thankful we have so many moments to treasure, and that we've done our running together.

Happy Anniversary, Aimee. I have and always will, love you.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pretty Sweet

This reminds me of some epic HORSE games back in the day with Brett and Wayne when TDS subs were on the line. We weren't as good as this guy, but I'm pretty sure we tried all these shots. In any event, this is a good way to kill three minutes.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stan the Man

Last night, Stan Weller passed away after what had been a quick illness, and a long, productive, and fulfilling life.

When I was a young youth pastor (v1.0) at Shawnee in the early/mid nineties I was so dumb I didn't know what I didn't know. It seemed like every other week I said or did something that got me into some kind of trouble. Whether it was people offended by my calling my senior pastor "The Great Bald One" (fortunately, over time the congregation developed a greater sense of humor) or ticked off trustees angry because another table ended up broken at Youth Fellowship, it seemed like the opportunities for me to get beat with sticks were abundant here. I realize most of this I brought down on myself, but I was truly ignorant, and I can tell you it wasn't bliss.

I don't know what it was that convinced Stan to step in and help a clueless guy out. He had been a teacher, coach, and administrator, so maybe he thought he could mold me just like his other students or a young teachers. He liked taking on hopeless causes and arguing with others (he liked to say God put him on the earth to give other people a hard time), so maybe as a member of SPRC, the incessant complaining he heard mainly from older members about the youth pastor kinda got his dander up. Maybe he felt compelled to step in because the lack of a youth ministry at the church prior to my being hired made him sick to his stomach. I don't know.

I suspect that real reason Stan took to me was due to all the mission work the teens were doing in those days. Some of the work - like the annual mission trips to rural South Carolina (which started as Hurricane Hugo repair work but over time became an effort to not only alleviate poverty among mostly rural poor elderly South Carolingians but an effort to bridge racial and cultural barriers in a divided Williamsburg County, SC) was initiated by me.

Some work they were doing wasn't. Ellen Dukeman, a high school student, initiated with a couple of other teens from the church an after-school art program at the Bradfield Center in Lima, which evolved into a once-a-week tutoring program totally run and operated by teens. Stan, I think, saw teens working and giving of themselves, and felt it was too important for the church, and the Kingdom, to idly stand by as the youth pastor in charge repeatedly shot himself in the foot. That's probably when the first invitation to come eat chili at his house happened.

Soon, on about a monthly basis, I found myself at Stan's house where we'd sit, eat, talk, and mostly laugh. In time he started giving me a hard time each and every Sunday morning before and after the 8:30am service. Not long thereafter, he'd regularly stop in at the office, grab Helen Price from her desk, and she and he would come heckle me mercilessly about how I (dis)organized my desk.

I loved every minute of it.

He owned an old orange suburban in those days which he made available to the youth group whenever they needed it. Later, because we were using it more than he was, he asked me if I wanted to buy it. I didn't really have the money so he set it up so the payments could be made whenever I could afford to do so. It took two years to finally pay off the $1100 I owed him, but he didn't seem to care. He burned the ledger in the fire of the grill he used to make us the hamburgers we ate to celebrate the end of my debt.

You just don't forget stuff like that.

After about a year of those lunches at his house, he had asked me so many questions about our mission work in South Carolina that I guess his curiosity got the best of him. He asked whether or not that following summer if he could go with us. I told him that was fine by me. Personally, though, I was a little worried. Stan retired early (at 55, I think). By the time he went down with us he was I believe about 70 years old. I wondered how he would get along with the teens, and they him.

I got my answer as we made our way down the highway on the very first day. I was leading a caravan of four or five vehicles, when out of nowhere an orange suburban went flying past my van. In it was one 70 year old driver and five teens dancing to music coming out of the radio. The suburban was swerving all over the road because the driver, while dancing, wasn't keeping his hands on the wheel as the hunk of metal loaded with kids and gear hurled down the highway at 75mph.

From that day on, Stan was, by far, the most popular adult counselor we took on our mission trips.

I remember something else about Stan's first year with us in SC. We had this kid go with us who even at the age of 12 or 13 was a hellion. Everywhere I had taken the kid he would be a real pain in the everlovin'. He was always mouthing off, sneaking off to grab a quick smoke (which I'd have to quash whenever I could), and causing some sort of trouble. He would openly tell me each week at YF that only reason he was there was because his mother made him go. Repeatedly I gave him permission to stay home, but his mother never relented. I remember shivering when she gave me the sign up form and registration fee so that her son, Todd, could go on the mission trip.

Anyhow, the first day Stan worked in South Carolina, it was hot. Real hot. Like 112 degrees in the shade hot. I had put in charge of building a wheelchair ramp at a home where a mother taking care of an adult daughter with MS lived, and it was clear by lunch that Stan was not well. He wasn't afraid of work, but unaccustomed to the heat he had already over-exerted himself. Because it wasn't that big of a job (I think that year we were also renovating a couple of houses) and because he insisted as a retired principle he could handle them, I had assigned to Stan a crew of my young troublemakers, including Todd.

At first, Stan worked while the kids stood around looking for trouble, but as he tired, he began assigning jobs and showing kids how to do things. By the time I arrived later that morning the kids were digging post holes, mixing concrete, cutting wood, and nailing nails while Stan sat under a shade tree drinking lemonade.

That night at devotions youth and adults were (in jest) giving Stan a hard time about sitting around all day. The ribbing was only growing and getting more pointed, when out of nowhere, Todd stood up, and began passionately defending Stan. Stan, he told us, was only doing what he was supposed to be doing... showing the teens who had signed up to work how to do the work. He went on to tell us to leave Stan alone because he was older and we needed to treat him with more respect. He concluded his speech by letting all know that Stan's crew, under his leadership, would outwork any other crew there that week and the rest of us could just kiss their ass.

Might be the only time I was ever proud of a kid for using blue language at devotions.

It was not only a turning point for Todd. The kid who hated coming to church and YF ended practically living there whenever he had the chance. But is was also a turning point for me, and all the adults and kids involved in the SC mission. From that day on adults made greater efforts to show the kids how to get things done and do the work, and kids expected to work hard. To this day, I don't think any youth pastor expected more work out of a group of teens than I did on those mission trips. One year, for example, in one week those kids built a house from the pad up, renovated another one (down the floor joyces and studs), renovated a church, and did a host of side projects. I think back now and wonder what I was thinking. I worked them so hard under that hot sun you'd have thought they were being punished, but every year their numbers grew.

By 1997 a group of almost 100 people, more than 80 of them teens, traveled to South Carolina to build and repair houses. It was Stan, out of personal necessity, who really taught us how to train and trust teens with actual work.

In any event, Stan became a perennial participant in our South Carolina mission . He was, by far, the most beloved volunteer I ever took anywhere in 20 years of ministry. He received the ultimate honor when one year during devotions the kids decided he was too cool to be an adult, and they made him a lifetime member of the youth ministry. Stan beamed from ear to ear.

I don't know when it happened, but sometime during my first six years at SUMC our relationship, which had started more as a mentoring thing, became a true friendship. I'd tell him about stuff at work or home and he'd talk about his own family. Out of that conversation, I ended up meeting his son, Mark.

Mark had since long quit going to church, which I have to say bothered Stan. Mark, after I'm sure hearing Stan talk about SC incessantly, liked what he heard about the mission work we were doing, and one summer asked if he could come with us. I remember all week he kept telling us we were doing everything wrong (the nut doesn't fall far from the tree). By the time the day came for us go home, he was hooked. Not only did Mark go with us every year until I left in 1997, but he also started playing b-ball with a bunch of us over-the-hill guys from the church at the local armory. He'd even show up occasionally and sit with his folks in the 8:30am service, which delighted his Dad to no end. I loved having him become part of the congregation, and he too became a good friend.

Those were very good days.

After we moved, Stan never failed to keep in touch. He was one of the most loyal friends I've ever had. When we lived in Toledo, he'd drive up occasionally and take us out to lunch. When we moved to Bloomington, Illinois, he and Betty planned a trip that included stopping off so they could meet our newborn son. When we lived in Goshen, they'd stop over a couple of times a year to see us to see how the kids were doing. In turn, whenever I was back in Lima visiting my folks, I usually found myself at least one afternoon or evening visiting with Stan and Betty at their home, checking out whatever car or camper he had just bought at the auction in Fort Wayne (he owned a gazillion cars in his lifetime... my hero) and getting caught up on what his family was doing.

After we moved back in 2004, the dementia that Betty had started to experience very slowly in the late 90's had totally eroded her memory. Stan was taking care of her round the clock and it was wearing him down. He was losing weight at an alarming pace, and I noticed that his own memory was starting to fade. We still had a bowl of chili occasionally and my two oldest sons and I went with him a few times to fish, but after he made the hard choice to put Betty in the nursing home (the day he did so it was the only time, I think, I saw him break down) I saw him less and less. He spent most every hour of each day by her side.

By the time she died this past winter, Stan was in pretty bad shape. Fortunately his sons, and the rest of his family, were there for him. It couldn't have been easy for them to ease him out of driving and eventually out of the home he had built, but they didn't have much choice. He was fading quickly.

We had no idea here at the church over the last month how rapidly Stan was deteriorating. He apparently was in the hospital for three weeks in late May/early June, but despite our calling that hospital every day to ask if they had admitted any of our parishioners, they failed to notify us that he was in their care (which still makes me very upset). That's why I was so shocked when Mark showed up at church Sunday to tell me that Stan was dying.

I just didn't know.

By the time I visited him Sunday afternoon he was unconscious, heavy morphine masking the pain which comes from a failing liver. I wish I could have told him how much he meant to me and how his support and friendship had shaped my life. I wish I had the chance to groan and laugh at one of his terrible jokes, and tell the same tired stories about the South Carolina mission trips. I wish I knew whether or not when I read to him the 121 Psalm and told him I loved him that he heard me. I wish I knew that when I kissed him goodbye on his forehead he knew it was me. I hope as around his bed I told his sons that there was no way I could take a dime to do his funeral, he heard Mark crack back, "Well that makes it easier cause we weren't gonna pay you anyway." I hope on the inside it made him laugh.

But I won't fret too much about those things. He'd just scowl if he heard me saying this stuff, and tell me to worry about something important. That's just the way he was, and maybe it's the thing about him I'll miss the most. I'll just take comfort in knowing that now he is safely with his Savior, embracing again his lovely wife, and telling all kinds of fish stories with buddies long since past.

Rest in peace, old friend. I look forward to seeing you again someday, laughing as we once did, over lunch in the kitchen of our Father's house. Just keep a pot of chili on the stove, and an empty bowl on the table.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What Makes A Leader Great?

Great article this morning on Kobe Bryant by The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. Simmons, a lifelong Celtics fan, has a hate-love (cause it's mostly hate) for any or all Lakers, and Bryant seems to be at the top of that list. I think he does a great job of dissecting the player-as-teammate versus the player-as-performer (if that makes sense). Simmons decides that Kobe is a great individual performer - maybe as good as any other we'll ever see in the NBA - but way, way down on the list of great teammates. The upshot, though, is that in order to make the leap into the pantheon of the greatest whoever played, Simmons conjectures that Bryant must becoming both a great performer and teammate.

Is he right? Who knows. If the Lakers repeat, or win multiple championships with a nucleus of Bryant, Gasol, Odum, and Ariza it would be hard to deny Kobe his rightful place in NBA history. He'll need to perform at a high level to make this a possibility, but he'll have to modify his behavior if he wants these guys to stick around. How the rest of his teammates continue to respond to him, and he them, that will define whether or not Kobe is a great basketball player or the greatest.

That's what possessed me to take this work break (no writing today... got church stuff to get done). Simmons' article led me to ask the question, "What makes a leader great?".

The answer: talent, drive and trust.

We just returned late last week from conference where we spent a lot of time listening to Mike Slaughter and his associate pastor, Sue Nilson Kibbey, who are at the forefront of Ginghamsburg (we keep the "United Methodist" part in 6-point font at the bottom of the sign) Church.

When Mike arrived at what was GUMC, it was a typical tiny burg kind of church. Old building. 50-80 people. Hidden location. Biggest thing that happened each year was an annual chicken noodle dinner. Without Mike's arrival, the future of the church is probably like so many other UMC's across our conference, which is to say eventual closure.

Mike, though, didn't do this alone. While he's a dynamic preacher, and a leader without fear, he knew needed other people to make the enterprise go. Tom Tumblin was imported to give the staff shape and the church the structure necessary as the first Executive Pastor. Mike Nygren, a shop teacher/volunteer youth director, took the youth ministry to new heights on the premise that kids would rather make a difference than be entertained. Mike's wife, Carolyn, helped give the adult discipleship department shape and form. Mike, very early, jettisoned the hymnal, and while other UMC pastors were railing against contemporary worship, Mike embraced it, hiring guitarists and drummers instead of an organist.

It was the team Mike assembled around him coupled with his talent and drive that really helped propel 90 person GUMC to 1200 person G

But the tales that one heard about working at G
UMC in those days were legendary. The average tenure for an employee was rumored to be 18 months. It was a pressure cooker.

The turning point, as I understand it, when Ginghamsburg went from hitting the ceiling at about 1000 to really taking off happened about 16-17 years into Slaughter's tenure. Tumblin left, replaced with somebody who ended up not being quite so able to keep things functioning under the remarkable pressure. Nygren left, throwing the youth ministry into chaos. Another leader who had been hired at some point mutinied against Slaughter's leadership, and left taking hundreds of people with him. The whole endeavor, if not in trouble, was at a crossroads. It was in crisis.

Enter Sue Kibbey.

I have strange perspective of G
UMC. I actually interviewed there in 2003 for a Young Adult ministry position. This was after spending most of a week with Slaughter as a part of a thing they used to do where pastors paid an insane amount of money to just follow Mike around to see how he did things (my boss at the time opted to this, and somehow I ended up getting dragged along after immediately coming home from 10 days in Haiti). Coming off that experience it was my impression that Kibbey made, and makes, the place go. She oversees all the stuff Slaughter can't, and is focused on what she believes is going to make the place work.

I guess it goes without saying that I didn't fit into that vision. Probably about the tenth time Kibbey made it point to say that they weren't really looking for an ordained minister for that particular position I should have realized what was up. I would have reported to her, and she knew what she wanted. She's disciplined and smart enough to know that if the person doesn't fit into that vision, keep looking. Call it the blessing of a prayer request being answered with a "no". If we had ended up at Ginghamsburg in 2003, no way Joseph would have talked to me about coming to Shawnee in 2004.

(Strange how things work out. I can live with having never worked at GUMC. I would be sick if the chance to come back to Shawnee, and in effect, home to Lima would have been missed. I truly love serving this church.)

Mike's trust of Sue Kibbey, and in effect her way of conducting business, is part of the reason why G
UMC keeps growing. The other part is Mike himself. He's a charasmatic communicator with a bulldog personality. Mike has vision for what he wants to create (a progressive evangelical church), has the talent to make it happen, and won't let the vision go. Kibbey is able to stack the blocks just right to make it happen.

Greatness comes only from talent, drive and trust.

Jordan ain't Jordan without , Jerry Krause, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen. Krause drafted and signed players that would compliment Jordan's skills. Jackson coaxed the hyper-selfish Jordan into becoming a teammate and trusting them in the "triangle" offense. Jackson too, dealt with other egos like Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman, doing just enough to harness their talent while allowing them to be themselves. Pippen did all the things Jordan needed him to do, setting an example for the rest of the team, and creating matchup nightmares for other coaches.

Without Jordan, there are no six championships in Chicago, but if Jordan doesn't trust everyone else his career is more like Allen Iverson's or Adrian Dantley's - lots of points scored but at the expense of the rest of the team. Maybe there's a championship or two, but given how good some of those Portland, Pheonix, and Jazz teams were in those days, it's not likely.

Will Bryant's teammates put up with his selfishness another year now that they have rings on their own fingers? If Bryant wants two or three championships, sans Shaq, he'll have to hope so... or start doing even more trusting than he does now.

Talent, drive and trust. That's what will separate the good from the great.