Friday, September 09, 2016

Raising the dead

I stood before the room full of people, knowing only a handful of them personally. They were seated on less than expensive stackable chairs. You would think funeral homes could do better. There was nothing fancy here, save the antique glass-enclosed hearse from the early 1900's on display near the lobby. That was clearly the single most magnificent item in this sad old enterprise.

The people seated on the chairs were grief stricken. I had visited with the core of this family a day earlier and they had surprised me at how cold they seemed. Speaking to them was akin to addressing iron statues. My words had seemed to reverberate back at me, having little effect. Honestly, little effect seemed to be needed. The sadness in the room seemed to come more from my taking up their time than from the purpose for our gathering.

Today was different. The one hundred or so people in the room emitted groans, sobs, and semi-stifled cries. I have long believed that ministers live for the moment of crises. That is when our presence is needed and our words are, perhaps, heard. The crises was palpable today.

I stood before them knowing that all of the songs had been sung, the personal words of eulogy had been shared, the scriptures had been read, and it was now my turn. I stood for fifteen quiet seconds before saying anything.

"On days like this one, pastor's know what to do. We have our speeches that we give. Our stock words that we share. They are all as true as they are predictable. But today I am putting those words away. I am folding up my notes. I can taste your pain. I can hear your agony. Clearly you are hurting because of the loss of your husband ... Your father ... Your grandfather ... Your friend. And you deserve more than the standard speech. The man whose body rests in the casket behind me made a decision in his teenage years. He decided to trust God to be the master of his life. He decided that he would live that decision out to serve God by serving people. He was very imperfect at it. Yet your tears are a testimony that maybe he achieved more than we thought he did in the spiritual realm. He loved you. For real. And you know that. And I want to tell you what happened to him three days ago, after he took his last breath.

And then I gave my best description of what heaven is like as I understand it. I am certain that upon reaching that place myself I will learn that my attempt was woefully under-powered. But I did my best to paint a picture of what life in my Father's house would be like according to the scriptures that we have. They kept crying but every eye was focused on me. They were not only listening ... They were hearing.

Do you know just how rare that is? Pastor's are used to speaking without anyone really hearing. We know when you are zoned out in your seat, counting the minutes until lunch. We are not blind. But we speak anyway and whether or not you pay attention is between you and God. On this day ... They heard.

And then I heard. I heard a voice that was not my own. It was really a whisper. A gentle nudge. Nothing actually audible. Just an interior impression. I have heard that whisper-nudge-impression before. The Holy Spirit of God was giving me instructions.

"At the end of your words, ask them if anybody wants to know Jesus. Ask if any of them are willing to acknowledge it here and live it out, serving God by serving others."


Really. At a funeral. Attended by hard nosed sinners. Hard nosed sinners in jeans and vests and Harley Davidson T-shirts. Here. God wanted me to do it here.

Or maybe I can just invite them to church. Maybe I can give them my business card and ask them to call me if they want to talk. You know ... Don't get too preachy on them. That might scare them off. Just nudge the door open for them.

And then I could hear my own voice closing out the service. I was out of time. I had to make a decision. NOW.

"Do me a favor, guys? I want to pray for you. I know you hurt. I want to talk to God about that. Would you mind just looking at your lap and closing your eyes while I do?" Heads went down. "Guys, you've heard about heaven. And you know this body in front of us is empty because its long-time occupant deserted it in favor of a better place. And that happened because of a decision he made about Jesus. Would YOU like to make that decision today? Just like he did? If you would ... Would you mind looking up at me for just a second? Right now?"

As I scanned the room I briefly locked eyes with seven faces. I smiled. I nodded. I told them they could close their eyes and look down. And I prayed for seven souls that decided to come to Jesus at a funeral. Later we served a meal for everybody at our church. I put brand new bibles on an empty table with my business card placed at Mark 1: 1. I got their attention over the chicken-chomping that was going on. I told the crowd, "Those of you who acknowledged a desire to know Jesus will find a bible on this table. It is for you. My phone numb
er is in it. You can learn more about Jesus by starting to read at the spot where my business card acts as a bookmark. I'm here if you need me."

As I sit and reflect on that moment today I realize I kind of thought ... Or at least acted ... Like God is out of the miracle business. I could not have been more wrong. Jesus still raises the dead at funeral services. He doesn't do it so much to the body in the casket any more. Now He does it to the bodies in the chairs.

And I'll never get tired of listening to Him and going on the adventure of doing what He says to do.  Occasionally ... just occasionally ... the benefits are eternal.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

It's Not Ok..

I've been thinking about it since I shared thr pool  with a snake at golds gym recently. And here's what I have decided ...

Bob's Burgers got it right.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Stupid Picture Chronicles #67

Well if this doesn't qualify as a picture of something stupid I'll just have to quit at #66.  Because this, my friends, is the picture of a crummy old fake flower in a real vase ... full of water.  If that isn't stupid enough, how about this.  The water is growing algea. Thank you "Tasty's" Chicago fast food 
for making this moment possible.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


It was the last stop of the day on the last day of the summer for "SOS."  ("Sacks of Summer," or, "SOS" is a cooperative effort of five churches in our community committed to providing free lunches over the summer to kids who are on the free-lunch program in our local schools. We drive into three neighborhoods where public housing apartments are located and provide a sack lunch to each child (and often each adult) who make their way to our vans looking for food.  School begins next week and so this was our churches last day to deliver the meals.) I saw the mommy making her way toward us while she was still 50 yards away.  A little boy clung to her left hand, a little girl to her right.  I kept my eye on them as I continued to hand out lunches and tease with the kids who had already come to get food.  There was just something about this trio that grabbed my attention.  They had been around all summer.  They were not new to the neighborhood or to SOS.  But today I felt an urgency inside I had not noticed before.  As they drew near the little boy looked at me.  And then he saw the blue plastic sack in my hand.  I was somewhat startled as he immediately dropped his mother's hand and darted at full speed toward the food. He did not look at me.  He did not look at the Crayola's and coloring pages others were handing him.  His gaze remained on that sack the entire time.  I handed his sister a sack and I gave one to his mother as well.  I noticed she looked more hardened than usual today. Like she was just barely there.  I've never done this in the years I've gone on weekly SOS runs but I clearly felt a prompt to ask her, "Do they have anything to eat tonight?" She replied with the same "one thousand yard stare" in her vacant eyes ... "probably not."  I grabbed three more bags and gave them to her.  "Make sure they eat tonight."  No reply.  No recognition that I was even there. She took the bags and turned to go back to her apartment, her kids following behind her cradling the only food they would get for who knows how long.

I wish I could fix global poverty.  I cannot.  I wish I could fix the systemic breakdown of racial and economic inequities.  I cannot.  I wish I could cheer every lonely person and comfort every sick person.  I cannot.  I cannot cancel the effects of bad decisions made in countless households, much less countless political administrations. Those are things we have to do together.  And that is not my job.  What is my job?  What can I do all alone and with the families that I connect with at the church we call "The Tower?"  It isn't that hard.  And it is not at all confusing.  We can punch hunger, sickness, racism, and an abundance of issues in its proverbial nose right where we live.

Jesus said it this way, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’"  And the Bible tells us in the book of James, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."

Honestly, friends, I think we ought to make a huge stink about the mess that is going on in our world ... in our country.  I think each one of us should stand up and make our voices heard about the ridiculous situations propagated by countless politicians and a media run amok.  If we do not put a stop to it we will be held responsible by a Holy God.

But ... and this is a really HUGE but ... I have no time to listen to those who spout opinions and point accusing fingers, and threaten all sorts of bad things if they do not get their righteous way.  And I have no time for those who pretend to be holy and say (or post on social media) all of the right and approved thoughts and opinions and then do absolutely nothing except feel good about themselves for having taken a stand. 

I'm a pastor and people talk to me.  Somebody told me at the gym this week that they would like to please God but they had no idea what to do.  All I could say is ... "Are you kidding me?  Seriously?  Feed a kid!  Give clothes to somebody who clearly is in rags!  That will help restore a bit of their self-worth!  Go to a nursing home and pick a room ... ANY ROOM ... and spend just 30 minutes of your day talking to whoever is in it! Call a children's home ... I'll find one for you ... and call them up and ask what they need ... then provide it!  Find a widow or a widower on your street or around a corner and get to know them!  Tell them your family would like them to come to dinner ... and YOU PROVIDE IT. Do you need more ideas?  Call me after you do those if nothing works out and I'll give you more tips!" Did I really say that?  Yes.  Will they take my advice?  I seriously doubt it.  (They probably won't sit with me in the whirlpool after working out again either.)  But make no mistake ... that is PRECISELY what Jesus expects us to do.  I understand that some agencies do not like to work with churches because we just come in and deal with the immediate need and then move along. Yeah.  Well.  My friends at Southern Baptist Disaster Relief would like to talk to you. They served those stricken by Hurricane Katrina for FOUR YEARS.  And when they are done the Billy Graham Association needs to have a word.  Then Compassion International needs you to come by.  I think you get the idea.

So, anyway, I guess it just took a nasty social environment and a little hungry three year old to get me out of my blog hibernation.  The look I saw in his eyes isn't going to leave me anytime soon.  Let me just end this way.  My church and I ... we are not perfect.  Oh, no.  Far from it.  But we've got dirt under our fingernails.  We've got faces soaked in sweat from a hot summer afternoon of serving those Jesus told us to go look for.  Most people just have a sore throat from talking too much or sore fingers from typing too much.  Okay, fine.  But ... as for me and my house ...

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Stupid Picture Chronicles #66

Life is about choices. Some are easier than others. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

News From The Hood

It has come to this.

I went to Gander Mountain to make a few purchases and as I was leaving a clearance rack caught  my eye.  Clearance racks do that.  I am, at my core, cheap.  While browsing through the rack I came up with a sweatshirt that I really like.  Right size.  Acceptable color.  Trendy brand.  (Did I mention I'm totally hip?)  Excellent price.  I took it with me to the check-out. That is where things got a little weird.



"Thank you for shopping with us.  Will this be on your Gander Mountain charge card?"

"No.  This will be cash."

"Alright.  (begins scanning my items.  Eventually comes to the sweatshirt.)  And would you like an extended warranty on your clothing?"

"Huh?"  (I'm so witty.)

"Would you like an extended warranty on your sweatshirt?"

"You are kidding, right?"

"No, sir.  Not at all.  If you rip it or stain it, you just bring it back and we will give you a gift card for the price of the sweatshirt."



"Who does that?"

"A lot of people purchase a clothing protection policy."

"Uhhhhhh.  No.  No, I think I can self-insure my clothes."

"Are you certain?"

"Let me think ... YES."

"Well.  Alright...."

What happened?  I just took a short nap and the world changed.  My life is insured.  That is so Debbie can dispose of my carcass legally and have enough left over to serve potato salad to anybody who might come to the funeral.  My house and my car are insured, in part because the state (and the lien holder) requires it.  But a sweatshirt?  Never mind  a CLEARANCE sweatshirt.  I think there is probably a deep point to be made here.  Something about our culture going wonky and nobody being willing to accept responsibility for their own stuff or their own actions anymore.  But if I make those points here I'll wind up sounding like a cranky grandpa.  (No matter that I am a cranky grandpa.  Shuddup.  I've earned the right...)  So I will just let you come to your own conclusions.

Oh, by the way.  When I got home I looked at the receipt.  She failed to ring the sweatshirt up as clearance.  I returned it that night and they argued with me about the price.  I asked for a refund.  I wonder ... if I had taken out sweatshirt insurance would they have refunded that too?  Do I need insurance against sweatshirt fraud?  This cannot lead anywhere good....

Friday, March 25, 2016

Stupid Picture Chronicles #65

Why is this stupid? Maybe it isn't. Maybe I am stupid. For driving 70 MPH next to this guy for far too long...

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Life Insurance and My Imaginary Friend

I cannot die. I have great confidence in corporate America. If I die it will cost them money.

Debbie came home from work today wanting to talk about life insurance. This immediately got my interest. She recently passed her conceal carry class. As far as I know she does not own a firearm but I did see her coming out of Gander Mountain recently. Neither of these things concern me greatly but gaze at one through the lens of the other and it is enough to make a man take stock of his marriage. 

But back to corporate America.

As a man with life in his limbs and breath in his lungs I am worth relatively little. Once I assume room temperature my net worth increases dramatically. You see, corporate America is betting that I will live a long time. And I am betting that I will die sooner than later. This is how the insurance industry works. Living, I buy my blue jeans at Target. Dying, I get a nice new suit from Brooks Brothers.

Today a man told me that I have an imaginary friend. We were at the gym and he had worked out much harder than I had. But that's because I'm much older than he is. These things have a way of balancing out. But as we rested in hot bubbly water he asked me what I did for a living. He looked much too smart to believe that I was a test pilot for Boeing and so I decided to go with the truth. "I am a pastor." His response was to look at me cynically and say, "Oh, you have an imaginary friend." I tried to respond with a confident look as I replied, "You bet your eternity I do." We smiled and left the conversation there. For now.

My insurance company is pretending that I'm going to live forever. The man in the hot tub is pretending that I won't. They are both right. And they're both wrong. I will live forever. But this body won't.

As for my wife, she would be much better off without me. But let's not tell her that. I promised my doctor I will live to 80 and Die of a pizza overdose. I am a lot of things, but I am not a liar.  Clearly I plan on making it. And if I don't, Debbie will be able to buy one with pepperoni for everybody.

Bon appetit!

Monday, December 21, 2015

It's Not Over Until He Says It's Over

The stage is set.  Two lovely young ladies stand, center stage, holding hands and waiting for the host to announce which one of them will be "Miss Universe 2015."  On one side we have Miss Colombia.  She towers over her opponent, Miss Philippines. If this were a boxing match the victor would be clear.  Miss Philippines would not last long, a victim of the extended reach of her brunette counterpart.

But it is not a boxing match.  It is the "Miss Universe Pageant."  The emcee for the evening strolls to the middle of the stage.  He begins reading the historic announcement.  "One of you is about to become our new, Miss Universe."  "Miss Universe 2015 is ... (dramatic pause) ... Colombia!!!!"

The crowd goes wild!  Miss Colombia accepts the "Miss Universe sash." She accepts the flowers.  She accepts the crown.  Clearly this is the highlight of her life!

It lasts for about two minutes.

Re-enter the emcee, a man with a clear look of dread on his face.  He raises his microphone.  "Okay, folks, ahhhh ... there's ...I have to apologize.  The first RUNNER-UP is Colombia.  Miss Universe 2015 is ... Philippines!"

The victory music begins again.  Both contestants look stunned.  The sash is moved from Colombia to Philippines, followed by the flowers and the crown.


There is so much that could be said about this.  I'm pretty certain you will hear a lot about it over the next few days.  Still, as I read it I confess that something jumped inside of me. I knew instantly that it was an internal whisper from a voice beyond the reach of my ears. It was not righteous indignation for either of the young ladies (though both of them have reason to complain.)  It was not anger at the host for messing up.  Nor was it sympathy for the host as he is about to be lambasted by many for this faux pas. It was something deeper.  Something with greater substance and meaning than the results of any beauty contest.  The voice reminded me that I was just like Miss Philippines. 

One time many years ago I was declared a loser.  I was shuffled off to the side like an after-thought.  My future was dark and only going to get darker.  Everybody who knew me agreed that I was a waste of space and deserved whatever penalties I got.  And then The Host of Eternity walked to the middle of the stage.  He stood beside me and said, "I am sorry.  There has been a mistake.  This man is not a loser.  Indeed, he is one of the greatest winners in all of history.  It seems that "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2: 2)  has declared that this man's destiny is to be discarded into a flaming trash heap where he will spend the rest of forever.  You need to know that is bad information.  I have examined the score card and I find that he is innocent of any charges against him by virtue of the trust he has placed in "The Lamb of God." Quick!  Somebody put a robe on this guy!  Get a ring for his finger!  Get sandals for his feet!  Hurry ... we have to get to the post production party being held in his honor!  (Luke 15: 22-23)

I am really sorry about what happened to those poor ladies at the Miss Universe Pageant.  But I am so glad that it reminded me of what Jesus did for me.

Merry Christmas!  And ... enjoy your new robe.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

God Bless You, Joe

It is Uncle Garland's fault.  He is responsible for solidifying my life-long love of the Cubs and disdain for the Cardinals.

Every summer during my childhood my parents would trick my brother and I.  They would promise a vacation to the Ozarks and Silver Dollar City.  They would dutifully pay-up.  A brief two day hiatus in the beauty of God's creation would be quickly followed with the news that, "Hey, kids!  We are going to grandma's house!"


Nothing personal, Grandma.  But I knew what was coming.  The evening after we arrived at her home my farmer uncle would show up.  Uncle Garland was a big man.  He owned acres and acres of cotton-covered farmland.  And he owned all of the equipment to make it happen.  But what my uncle really owned was the world's most dangerous beard.  It wasn't really a beard.  He kept it at "lethal stubble" length.  I don't know, about a three-day growth maybe.  It covered his chin, his cheeks, under his nose, all of those places a good beard is supposed to cover.  And here is the thing.  I was a Chicago kid who knew nothing ... NOTHING ... about life on the farm.  Uncle Garland taught me to drive his tractor and I have not touched one since.  Before I could drive the tractor, Uncle  Garland would grab me up in his big, massive, catcher's mitt sized hands.  He would ask me what baseball team I cheered for.  I would dutifully and honestly reply, "The Chicago Cubs."  He would let out a big belly laugh and say, "Isn't that the team that plays with rubber balls?"  And then ... then ... (this is really hard for me) ... he would bring my tender seven year old cheek up to his burly chest, give me a hug I could never hope to escape from, and then rake my face upward across his "chin of doom" over and over and over and over ad nauseaum.  The tears would flow.  As he set me down He'd tell me "The Cardinals are the only team worth cheering for!  Don't you know that yet?  What are they teaching you up there in that city?"  I would be reaching for my cheeks, fully expecting to find the skinless, blood covered, remainders of the face I use to have.  My parents would smile and then they would go inside and have tea.

I don't like the Cardinals.  Uncle Garland taught me to dislike  them.  (Clarification: I have no hatred toward any individual, whether they wear red or not. I'm talking "baseball hatred" here. It's simply casual sports terminology, as in "that is not my team of choice," or "I get a migraine when this particular club beats my club." I'm certain the Cardinal's are all fine young men. Though they never send me a Christmas card.) The Cardinals were synonymous with pain.  People who loved the Cardinals were mean.  I would watch my Uncle go inside swearing an even deeper allegiance to my heroes on the north side.  I would never give up.  No matter what.  NEVER.

Over the years my original opinion was confirmed.  The Cardinals and pain.  Pain and the Cardinals. They were the same thing.

And then came Joe Maddon.  He came to town and he brought friends.  Good friends with names like Rizzo and Bryant and Swhwarber and Fowler and Soler and Arrietta and Lester.  And you know what?  Joe has a beard that looks a lot like Uncle Garland's beard.  Actually JOE looks a lot like UNCLE GARLAND. I knew it the first time I saw him.  But he was wearing blue.  Cub blue.

And somewhere deep below a cotton field in Arkansas ... the earth shook.

You see, "The Curse" is real.  But for me it had nothing to do with billy goats or 100 year droughts.  It had everything to do with Uncle Garland.  Uncle Garland's beard.  And Uncle Garland's minions who have jumped up and down in red jersey's and pumped their fists in the air and laughed at my beloved Cubs.

Most of my best friends are Cardinal fans.  Two of my kids are Cardinal fans. That has made it very difficult over the years.  I love my friends.  I love my family.  We just do not agree on baseball.  They have never once grabbed me and raked my face against theirs and for that I am grateful.  The raking has come with every home run off of a Cubs pitcher.  With every blown save by a Cubs reliever in Busch Stadium.  With every World Series ring.  And yes, there have been a lot of them.

Last night the curse was broken.  Uncle Garland holds no power over me today.  I am free from his stubble ... free from his raucous laughter ... free from his rubber-ball-jokes.  I love Uncle Garland.  I just don't miss him.  And when I see him in heaven, I suspect we will at long last have a talk.  And then we will laugh. But I will laugh the longest. Because I waited. Because I remained faithful. And because the curse is broken!  I did not cry when my children were born. I did not cry when my brother and I buried my parents. Last night ... When the Cubs destroyed the cardinals ... I cried. 

Will the Cubs go to the World Series this year?  I do not know.  Will they maybe even win the World Series?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But I have to tell you.  For me ... the Big Game was played last night.  The Cardinals were not just knocked out of the play-off's by the Cubs.  They were embarrassed.  They were decimated.  They were made to look ... dare I say it ... human. And that is all I will ever need for the rest of my life.  I am satisfied.

Anything else is gravy.  The curse is broken.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Moon Shot

When I was just a little tyke I had great and grand aspirations for life.  I wanted to be so many things "when I grow up" that I could not keep track of them all.  I thought it would be terribly cool to drive one of the big-rigs.  For a while I fell asleep to visions of piloting my red Mack truck down the highways of America.  The crashing surf on my right and green clad mountains on my left.  Then I got run over by a drunk truck driver (literally) and decided maybe that was not the life for me.  Perhaps spurred on by the booze laden truck driver I took a couple of years of criminology at the front end of my flirtations with higher education.  It would be awesome to wear the badge and bring the bad guys to justice.  I love to write and I squeezed some semesters of journalism in after the crime-phase passed.  I had so many plans ...

And then God whispered.  (He does that. You have to listen closely.) And now for forty-one years I have done something that I cannot explain.  I am a "reverend" and I tripped over the best job description I have seen for what I do this morning when somebody sent this my way ... Click here to see what I do

So there you have it.

Lately I have been noticing the "ebb and flow" of serving as a pastor.  One day not too long ago everything went great.  I mean, really truly great.  It was the kind of day you want to spray with a quick sealing varnish so that it never changes and it is always there to look at.  Sadly, that doesn't work.  You have to let the day go the way of all the days before it.  The next morning I got up early and went to a hospital to pray with someone that was having a serious piece of surgery done.  Life and death kind of stuff.  Then the next day I conducted a funeral and tried my best to prop up a grieving family.  I do not want to save those kinds of days.  They can go ahead and slide off into history.  The next day?  A friend bought me lunch.  That is a really, REALLY big deal because my friends never pick up the tab!  So that was another day I wanted to varnish.

Can we talk about church for a second?  I dont mean a church service.  I want to talk about church.  Church is "us."  We are church.  So by way of definition you know what I mean, right?  I am politely saying I want to talk about people.

I love people.  Have you noticed they are all around?  Big one's.  Little one's.  Brilliant one's.  Not so brilliant one's.  They circulate through life as though some giant fan kept them stirred up.  Some times people are happy.  Some times they are angry.  Some times people are helpful.  Some times people cause pain.

So here is the thing.  Happy people make me happy.  Angry people make me angry.  Perhaps this is true of you too.  Or maybe, because God assigned me to watch out for people and help them through life, I  might be a little more prone to being swayed by their moods and words.  Would you like to ruin my week?  (Please say "no.")  Tell me that our church services stunk yesterday.  Tell me why you are unhappy.  Be sure to tell me that you just might go look for another church if things don't change soon.  But whatever you do, don't ... DO NOT offer any solutions.  Make it clear that your happiness is my problem.

Honestly?  I've been looking.  I've looked the proverbial "high" and the proverbial "low."  And I find all kinds of things that God tells me I am suppose to be concerned about.  But I just cannot find one that says I am suppose to make people "happy."  I'm pretty certain I am suppose to teach them to love God, to walk like Jesus, and to bless and take care of their neighbor.  Truthfully, the Holy Spirit has never seemed too concerned about making me (or, as best I can tell, anyone) happy.  He's trying to make us Christ-like.

Okay.  Well, it is Monday and I spent most of this day with a man who is within days of the end of his life.  And I spent the rest of the day with a crazy lady.  (Nope.  I'm not going there.)  I don't suppose I'll be varnishing today.  But I was reminded yesterday of an old song that I love.  It is written and performed by Sara Groves.  Have you ever wanted to get away and go someplace where the world will not mess with you and the church can be free to be the church without all of the mess of dealing with the hard stuff?  (Of course you have.  We all have.  But we would not go even if we could because we really want to do what Jesus tells us to do.  And Jesus tells us some days won't be worth varnishing.  Though I believe He says it in Aramaic.)  It's less than 90 seconds long yet it pretty much describes how I feel as this week begins.  Give it a listen.  Maybe I'll even varnish it.  Watch Sara sing a great song right here...)

P.S.  I'll be over it by morning.  Tomorrow is going to be a great day!

Monday, August 03, 2015

Our Guest Blogger ... James Woods

And today we have a guest blogger!  My big brudder (aka: brother) James Michael Woods.  I'm grateful he didn't kill me when we were kids and he had the opportunity.  James has his own blog and this was a part of the product recently...

It’s not easy being eleven years old
And confined to the Impala’s backseat
For twelve
Stiflingly hot hours
With the windows down
And August’s thunder of rushing air
So loud
The AM radio could not be heard
And my nine year old brother
Protesting (accurately)
That I had wantonly
Crossed the invisible line
We had established as the DMZ
Between us on the
Sweltering black vinyl seat.

Dad did not believe in potty breaks
So we drank little
As we counted mile markers
Down US 66
And read Burma Shave signs...
If Hugging on Highways
Is Your Sport
Trade In Your Car
For A Davenport!

Deep into the night
Dad searched for a bargain motel.
They always looked beautiful
Washed in red and blue neon lights
Affixed where gutters should have been.
The cabins typically were walled
In knotty pine
The in-window air conditioners rumbling
Like an idling diesel.
The beds were sometimes equipped with
Magic Fingers
That shook the mattress
For ten minutes
The way a wet dog shakes itself.
Fifteen bucks for the room
And a dime for the vibrating bed.

The black and white TV’s
With "rabbit ears"
Received a station or two
But often had to be smacked on the side
To stop the picture from rolling.
But that didn’t matter.
We were on vacation!
Mom and dad tantalized us
With promises of stopping the next day at
The Ozark Mule Trading Post
Where, if we were good
Could buy a pecan log candy bar (my choice)
Or a box of malted milk balls (my brother's choice)!

The new DMZ was now drawn down
The center of our bed
But that was okay
Because sleeping brothers cross that line
All night long.

Those days live only in memory.

I’ve stayed at expensive hotels
Ate wonderful dinners
And haven’t desired a pecan log
For fifty five years.
The Ozark Mule is in ruins
As well those bargain motels.
Movies can be had on any Smart Phone
And today's kids don’t know
What an AM radio is
Much less "rabbit ears"
And rolling pictures.

My brother and I love one another
And the idea of any DMZ
Between us is laughable.
I spoke with him last night.
(Actually, texting has supplanted voice.)
But we are loyal citizens of the backseat
Where memories of oppressive heat
Fading AM signals
Cheap motels
And too-few potty breaks
Have served to make aging brothers
Become young once more.

I would do every bit of
Those rattling road trips
Over again
With one exception…
There is never to be another
No-man’s land
Between Ron’s half of the Impala
And mine

James, you are far more gifted at writing than I ever dreamed of being.  Thanks for the memories!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

An Open Letter To God On The Occasion Of My Sixtieth Birthday

An Open Letter From Me To God...

Dear Unfathomably Huge, Mind Alteringly Loving, and Shockingly Supportive Heavenly Father...

There is so much I want to say and so few keystrokes within which to say it.  If I were to attempt to mention all of the things I would like to thank you for my computer memory would over flow and the knuckles of my fingers would wear out.  (Come to think of it, my knuckles are wearing out anyway.  Since we are on the subject, You think You could help me out with that?)

Well.  Today.  Sixty years.  Really?  I mean, how did that happen?  I do not mind being sixty.  But I feel a little like a guy who decided to drive across the country from coast to coast.  I figure I am three quarters of the way to my destination.  So if I left New York sixty years ago I should arrive in California in twenty more years.  The problem is that should put me around the Colorado/Utah border, and yet I occasionally smell salt in the air. Perhaps I am really around Sacramento?  That would be alright.  My tires (and scalp) are getting bald.  There are much worse things than getting home early.

Anyway, God.  Thank you for all of those years that were pre-cognitive for me.  The blurry years.  Mental images captured in the, as yet, unfocused camera of my brain.  Holding my father's hand and staring across the Detroit River at a far-away-land called "Canada."  I know he was telling me about it.  He made it sound like Narnia.  I've been there now, and it is not.  Mom explaining to me that a "Detroit Tiger" lived across the street.  God, I really had no idea what baseball was.  (If I had, would I have chosen to be a Cub fan?  Doubtful.  We'll talk about that later.)  All I knew was that a Tiger lived in that brick house.  I never crossed Vaughan Street again.

Somehow, by your grace (and I increasingly believe by your predestination) I lived long enough to move to Chicago and become an adolescent.  A place and a time of growing.  Of tall corn fields and even taller buildings.  Moments came into my life that have lasted.  Moments represented by phrases like, bad baseball, senior prom, dates, Jesus loves you, get a job, this diploma is seriously mine?, I do, would you go buy some more diapers, we're moving to St Louis.  And it was all because of you, God.  You kept me alive through a truck accident that should have killed me.  You saw me though nine years of higher education while cutting my teeth as a youth pastor, a new husband, a young father, a school bus driver, a factory worker, and a growing kid of yours.  The fact that I survived is proof that you exist. 

Then came the middle.  At least I assume it was the middle.  We shall see.  There was more youth pastoring, crazy insane ministry situations that broke me and sent me to the wilds of Colorado where you and a wise group of people gently held me for three weeks and literally healed and reformed my soul.  There was grace found within the walls of the home I lived in my with my wife and three phenomenal kids, within the congregation of a church that I loved more than I loved my own soul, and repeatedly in the stillness of a monastery in Minnesota where Godly people taught me about grace and prayer and hearing your still, soft voice.  You walked the woods with me and met me on a labyrinth made of mulch and released me from my past.  And then there was explosion and ugliness and pain.  All couched in sin and pride.  I fought the good fight with every breath until a wise man told me to stop fighting.  To move away from the battle or most certainly die.  Then there was more healing.  And there was Cleveland.  A lonely studio apartment all alone hovering ninety feet above Lake Erie with only you to talk to.  You were in the howl of the wind every night as the winter gale blew in from Canada and the Arctic Circle above that.  There was ... is ... my Towerview family.  Senior saints and young families all coming together to be a sweet fragrant offering of salvation in our community.  Here I find my brothers and sisters who wear uniforms to work every day.  They keep me safe as I walk out my life and I repay them by having their backs in prayer and teaching them your Word.

There is Debbie.  Kelli and Joe.  Scott and Amanda.  Chris and Laura.  There is Elle, Paisley, Judah, Liam, Beckett.  My Tuesday night family (they know who they are.)  My Thursday night family.  (They know who they are.)  My breakfast buddy.  My lunch buddy.  The small army of people that I talk to so frequently by text, or on the phone, or in my office, or in our homes.  They all know who they are, God.  And I know who they are.  They are a gift.  From  you, to me.  And I thank you because they keep me sane and walking in a straight line toward your throne.

So, yeah, God.  I'm sixty today.  Entering the fourth quarter.  Plenty more game to play.  Plenty more names to add to those above that I am so thankful for.  But know this, God.  If I've got the timing off.  If it all ends with my "race red" Mustang embedded in the grill of an eighteen wheel truck this afternoon ... I am honored by every moment you have given me.  I am speechless over every person you have sent me way.  (Some in a good way.  Some ... )  Sometimes I am so tired that I just want you to call my name and let me come home, collapse in a chair in your living room, and savor the sweet smells of heaven.  Yes, sometimes life does that to me.  But most of the time I am ready for you to call the next play. I'm ready to run another mission a yard from the gates of hell.  I know if I get back there I will recognize my foot prints from other missions.  It's been a crazy ride, God.  Crazy.

I would be out of line... totally remiss ... if I did not tell you this.  I love you.  With every breath.  Every heart beat.  Every step.  Every thought.  I am so far from perfect, God, that it scares me.  How can you possibly love  me?  And then I remember.  I remember your voice on those nights when you have woken me from my slumber to let me hear you sing over me.  And I look at the moon.  And I remember why you made it.  And I love you all the more....

Monday, June 22, 2015

I Try To Say Good-bye And I Choke ... (spoiler alert: a "downer blog" with a "upper twist")

Father's Day, Circa 2015, has been a little gloomy.  I greatly enjoyed the lunch with my daughter and her family, the hug from Christopher when in invaded his work place, and the extended FaceTime with Scott and Amanda from their home near Chicago.  Debbie treated my like a King, feeding me and encouraging me to do whatever I wanted.  We had a great day at church, complete with bacon at a breakfast the ladies of our lives prepared for the men folk.  You cannot beat bacon.  It was a day filled with very good stuff. 

The truth is that fifteen years ago today was the last time I saw my dad alive.  It was the last time I shared a sentence with him.  My dad passed away from liver cancer on June 23, 2000 in Mtn. Home, Arkansas.  I think of my dad every day and give him more than a passing thought around this time every year.  And this year, even more so.  I suppose it is because the anniversary of my last visit with him coincided with Father's Day.  Honestly, we will have a talk about that some day when I catch up with him.  He could have chosen any other month for his home-going.  He did not have to mess up my holiday.

In June of 2000 I was at Centrifuge with the teenagers of my church.  I called my parents daily to check on them and especially to inquire into dad’s health.  I knew he was not well.  Dad had cancer and he was taking a mild chemo to relieve the symptoms and try to buy him another year of life.  I was with him when the doctor recommended it.  I took him to his first treatment several weeks before.  I could live with that... Another year.  I would make it endless.  I made plans to go there every other week knowing we would laugh and talk and share stories.  The year would last.  I called him from a pay phone(remember those?) at Centrifuge in the middle of the week.  That is when I discovered he was in the hospital.  It seems he had fallen and mom found him on the floor. When we talked he sounded so weak... So frail.  I asked him if I should come and he told me to wait until after Centrifuge.  “Stay there son and do a good job.”  Those were his words.  I did as he said. 

But the week ended.  I returned home, got through the weekend, and went to Mtn. Home.  Dad was still in the hospital and clearly he was in trouble.  My dad was dying.  Not later.  Not in a year.  He was dying now.  I did the only thing you can do.  I sat with him.  

Over the next couple of days he drifted in and out of reality.  He would talk to me, weakly, but coherently.  And then he would be gone in a merciful wash of pain medication.  Scott was with me on the trip and on our last evening there we drove out to Lake Norfolk and engaged in the time-honored tradition of skipping rocks.  Then we drove back to check on dad.  I looked at what he had tried to eat for supper.  He had gently run his spoon through the soft foods in a halfhearted attempt at making me happy.   I took a surgical rubber glove out of the box by his sink, blew it up, drew a smiley face on it, and wrote, “We love you dad.”  Then I tied it near the foot of his bed where he could see it.  Dad was doing well tonight.  Maybe he’d rally and get back home after all.

The next morning, as I walked down the hall of the hospital, God whispered.  He does that.  When He knows I need to hear Him... He speaks.  Generally through impressions and never through an audible voice.  And this time He told me not to expect what I saw last night.  I kind of already knew.  As I walked into the room Dad was incoherent.  He gasped for air.  He wheezed.  I talked to him and I had no idea if he heard or understood.  Soon Scott came into the room.  We spent time in silence and time trying to help dad.  Trying to give him our strength.  Scott left for awhile.  Soon Dr. White came by.  He called me out of the room where he told me that dad’s liver was gone... Totally consumed by the tumor.  He was going to die.  But he had a strong heart and “might rock on for a week or two.”  Then he turned and left.  No “I’m sorry.”  No “Can I do anything?”  No “We are doing the best we can.”  He walked away and left me standing alone in an empty hallway with my hero dying 8 feet away.

I'm the pastor.  I am suppose to be strong.  I have been with other people at this moment dozens of times. This ... was different.

Scott returned and we knew we needed to pray with grandpa.  Dad suddenly woke from his restless slumber.  “Dad... Can we pray with you?”  Dad never talked about things like prayer.  Maybe he prayed.  Maybe he didn’t.  He told mom that he prayed the Lord’s Prayer before going to sleep each night of his adult life.  But he didn’t talk about it.  “Yes.”  It was a reply borne out of a gasp for breath.  I prayed.  I prayed the prayer of my life.  I had prayed it a hundred times by a hundred beds with a hundred dying men.  But this time the prayer took on new meaning.  Scott prayed.  And as we said “Amen” we looked at dad.  He was not looking at us.  He was looking past the foot of his bed.  He was looking up, above the TV, where the ceiling met the wall.  And he said in a strained, hoarse voice... “What is that?”  Scott and I looked up.  There was nothing there.  “What is what?”  I asked.  “What is that?” Dad gasped again and his eyes grew wide.  And we said nothing.  There was nothing where he was looking.  Nothing for our eyes to see.  But dad’s gaze remained fixed to the spot until he lapsed back into a merciful semi-coma.  I have wondered many times what dad saw that day.  Perhaps it was the delusions of a dying man.  Perhaps he saw the city of his dreams.  I don’t know. 

I sent Scott to the store to pick up groceries for grandma.  If dad might “rock on” for another week or two I needed to return home and make a sweep through the office.  I needed to check on my family and make sure they were ok.  I needed to find someplace to breath.

Scott left.  I sat by dad.  He struggled to sit up claiming that he had to go to the bathroom, unwilling to give in to the ever present catheter.  And then he slept.  He sucked air with all of his ability.  I stood by his bed.  I left the room.  I came back in.  I stroked his forehead gently.  I quietly told him how very much I loved him.  I told him how grateful I was for the life he had given me.  I thanked him for the countless hours of work to support his family.  I thanked him for the “Jimmy Jets” my brother and I always called our favorite Christmas presents ever.  I thanked him for being there even when he didn’t know how to speak words of wisdom.  I kissed him gently on the forehead.  I said, “Goodbye Dad.”  And I walked out of the room knowing in my heart that I would never see my father alive again. 

I walked through the hospital corridors.  I thought about going back and seeing dad one more time.  But I kept walking.  I exited the building into the bright sunshine of the parking lot.  I took keys from my pocket and opened the door to my father’s car, the huge, spotless 1978 Ford LTD.  Dad’s pride and joy.  He said when he bought it off of the dealer’s lot that it was the last car he would ever own.  I put the key into the keyhole, totally aware that my father would never do that again.  I turned over the big engine.  The radio was on and tuned to the station that Scott had punched in the night before.  Out of the speakers came the voice of Macy Gray.  “I try to say goodbye and I choke.  Try to walk away and I stumble.  Though I try to hide it, it’s clear, my world crumbles when you are not here.”  I sat in the parking lot for what seemed like an eternity.   Scott and I drove home that afternoon, a Thursday.  I planned on going back on Saturday.  Dad ran to Jesus on Friday.

And so I  suppose it is alright to be a little less than jubilant this Father's Day.  Fifteen years is a big deal.  It is a long time.  A "marker" of sorts on the highway through life.  I was driving from my office to my home for lunch today.  I like silence when I drive.  Today I broke with that tradition and flipped the stereo on.  Talk radio came across the air waves.  Ummm.  No.  Not today.  And so I pushed the button to go to FM.  And there she was again ...

"I try to say good-bye and I choke
I try to walk away and I stumble
Though I try to hide it, it's clear
My world crumbles when you are not here.."

Wow.  Macy Gray.  Fifteen years later ... to the day.  What were the odds...