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!