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...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Death By Pizza

I had a doctor's appointment last week.  My doctor is more than a physician to me.  She has become a friend.  After appointments we generally spend half an hour talking about her job and my job and family stuff.  I told her last week that I am about to turn 60 and I am planning on living till 80.  Any more is a bonus.  I mentioned that being 32 years old if she could stay out of the way of trucks she would most likely out-live me and, thus, I expect her at my funeral.  If I expire before 80 she has some explaining to do.  She told me that this should not be a problem and asked how I plan on dying.  (If nothing else, she can be a smarty pants.)  I told her we all die of something and my cause of death would clearly be "pizza." Or possibly cheese burgers.

That started me thinking.  While my purpose in life is not "eating," it is an appreciated perk.  And so here, revealed for your pleasure, are the "Top Ten Foods I cannot Say 'No!' to."  Warning ... simply reading this list will raise your cholesterol level significantly...

10.  Ok, let's just cut to the chase.  Here's my weakness.  Anything ... (almost) anything ... with a sauce on it.  I break out in a cold sweat.  My hands tremble.  My knees grow weak.  If you put a good cream sauce on a pop-tart it's going down.  Samson had his hair.  I have my sauce.  It's how I live.

9.  Lasagna.  Juicy.  Tomato-y ... Meaty.  Cheesy.  Cut into a brick about the size of your head.  If you don't have a favorite go ... no ... run ... to "Sugo's" in Edwardsville.  Best lasagna on the planet.  And yes, as a matter-of-fact, I have tried them all.

8.  Jay's BBQ Potato Chips.  What do you mean you haven't tried them?  GO.RIGHTNOW.DOIT.  You'll never be the same

7.  M&M's.  Or as we say at my house, W&W's.  And you must eat them so that you always have the same amount of all types of colors at all times.  You know.  In case the M&M Police come and check up on you.  (Option:  Eat all of one color before starting on another color.  Take them in any order as long as the dark chocolate ones are the last one down the pipe.  Yes, it matters.)

6.  A pork roast cooked all day long in a crock pot.  And then when you eat it you douse it in some kind of special potion my mother-in-law concocted.  I have no idea what is in it but I'm pretty sure it starts with ketchup and mustard.  Brown sugar seems evident as well.  This will go down as the signature donation of my mother-in-law to the human race.  (Thanks, Ruth!)

5.  This one is special.  Dad introduced me to tamale's.  He said he had a weak stomach and so he never ate pizza.  But he would eat tamale's prepackaged out of a jar and sold in Detroit grocery stores.  They came in mexican sause and were wrapped in corn shucks.  To this day I cannot turn down a tamale.  I've not been able to find them in grocery stores here so if anyone knows where they are, don't keep secrets!

4.  This will sound odd but ... a lovely tuna sandwich on white bread.  Mix in some diced pickles and light mayo.  Add a leaf of crisp iceberg lettuce.  This meal got me through highschool.  I consumed enough mercury in those four years to name a planet after.  As a matter-of-fact, they did.

3.  Skyline Chile from Cincinnati.  And since I don't live in Cincinnati I have a connection there (Hi, Joe Dills!) who sends me cans of their chili.  I use BallPark's Angus all beef franks, finely shredded cheddar cheese, and diced onions.  Microwave it to melt the cheese and you are set.  (Warning:  Stay away from open flame.  'Nuff said.)

2.  Pizza.  No, not Chicago deep dish.  While I love my hometown pizza it is not my favorite.  I prefer a place found around the windy city named "Aurelio's."  Put some sausage on it.  And pepperoni.  I must have my pepperoni!  And here is the key ... extra sauce.  ALWAYS order extra sauce!  (Lately I've been consuming "Alex's Pizza" from O'Fallon.  Alex is a one man band.  He takes the order, makes the pizza, and serves it.  All by himself.  Usually I stand at the counter and we chat while he tosses my dough in the air.  I love Alex.  He only has one flaw.  He refuses to put extra sause on my pie!  He says it makes it too messy.  This will eventually spell the end of our relationship.)

1.  Cheese burgers.  Oh, yea.  No need to hold the grease.  Add ketchup, mustard, grilled onions, and relish, please.  Oh, and make the cheese "pub cheddar cheese."  Not that fake stuff like they sell on nachos at the ball park.  Worth dying for ... and I just might do that.

Note:  You may have noticed bacon is not on my list.  Bacon is not a food. It is air. It is water. It is ... life.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hi. My Name Is Ron And I Am Flawed

Life is not all sugar plum fairys and tip-toeing through the tulips with Jesus. We've all been around too long to expect that. I am a pastor and I love God with all of my heart. I am a human being and, as such, I am as flawed as the next guy. But I know it, and I'm working on it. All pastors that I'm aware of fit that description. The ones who drive me crazy are the ones who will not admit it.

I have an Anonymous "friend" who does not like me. That's alright. Sometimes I do not like me much either. But my "friend" seems to be upset that I did not publish a comment that I actually never received. So I did receive the following comment today. I decided to elevate it to actual "blog post" status instead of posting it as a comment. Why? I'm not really certain. I hope this makes "my friend" feel better. Personally I get my worth from Jesus and He likes me a lot. 

"Since you chose not to publish the last comment, I know you saw it. This is concerning. Things don't appear to be adding up mentally. There are people who can help you. If this is how you feel, you need help. Acting like a know-it-all ass of a pastor is not acceptable. Grow up. You are honestly the biggest disgrace to Christians. People at your church are starting to notice. Good luck."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Just Deep Enough To Drown

Michael W. Smith (and about 1,000 other artists) sing a song called, "Breath."  It's message is simple.  "This is the air I breath.  Your Holy Presence, living in me."  That's a good way to live.  A good way to think.  God should be what we take in.  God should be what we let out.  He should be our all in all.

Yet sometimes life overwhelms.  You get tired and run out of things to pour out of your soul for others feast on.  Sometimes you just find yourself subdued.  You struggle to figure things out in your own life or in the lives of others and answers do not come easily.  In this life questions will always outnumber answers.  Then you start second guessing yourself.  "Have I obeyed God?"  "Do I really love Him like I say I do?"  "What did I do to make God stand-off-ish?"

After that comes an even more difficult stage.  After you examine yourself in a very "Job-esque" fashion, and you come to the conclusion that you do indeed obey, love, and pursue God, and He still doesn't answer your questions, grant your requests, or come near ... you find yourself questioning Him.  "WHY doesn't He respond?  After all, you have obeyed Him, loved Him, and pursued Him. He owes you that. Right?"  Silly.  He does not owe you anything.

That is dangerous.  Dumb too.  But it is even more dangerous and dumb to lie about it if that is where you find yourself.  God is God.  So He already knows what you are thinking.  You are busted right off the bat.  All you have to do is entertain the thoughts and ... bang ... guilty.  So you eat yourself alive over that.  Now your guilt is at least doubled.

And you find the chorus going around in your head, "This is the air I breath.  This is the air I breath.  Your Holy presence.  Living.  In me."  But it isn't feeling so true anymore.  You are not breathing in His Holy Presence.  He occupies some far-off place that you cannot reach no matter how hard you try.  You remember that He was close by ... recently.  Or at least a while ago.  Maybe a few years back.  But you KNOW He was there.  So you anchor yourself to that.  You tie yourself off to it so tightly that when the next big wave of your personal storm comes, instead of that "rock of a memory" holding you tightly you actually bash yourself against it.  You bleed from remembering the past and comparing it with the present.

Now your boat is sinking.  You are taking on water.  I mean, you know that you cannot sink.  "He" has a grasp on you that cannot be broken.  You believe that.  You really do.  But you cannot deny that there is water in the bottom of the boat.  With every wave it washes over you.  It never gets so deep that you cannot see the truth.  There is always daylight just above you.  Just out of reach.  And you know there is air up there.  Spiritual air.  You can see it.  You just cannot feel it.  You cannot breath it. And there you are.  Not deep enough to be lost.

Just deep enough to drown.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mostocolli Life

I know a lot of dead people.  And by that I mean that I have buried a lot of dead people.  As a matter-of-fact, all of the people I have buried have been dead.  You may assume I take the doctor's word for their passing.  Or the coroner's word.  Uh uh.  Nope.  I have my own test I perform.  I do it when I am in the room all alone with the dearly departed.  I would tell you what the test is but then you would have nothing to look forward to if you should need my services someday.  A poll of those I have buried would show that I provide them with their last surprise before the lid is closed and the dirt is thrown.  So I'll just keep my secret.  For now.

After I present my surprise to the dead person, following the "rememberance celebration" (aka: funeral) and immediately in the wake of the dust being returned to the dust, most dead guys families return to their local church where they tell stories, wash their hands, (always wash your hands after leaving a funeral home.  Do not ask me why.  I studied this stuff.  Just wash your hands and be very glad you read this little article,) and then they sit down and eat mostocolli.  Always mosticolli.  Occasionally chicken is also offered but, think about it, every funeral you have ever attended had mostocolli served at the closing bell.  Right?  See what I mean?

I have spent considerable time delving into the question of the mostocolli.  I have talked to ministers of every denomination, funeral directors, church cooks, as well as the people who do the consuming of the "pasta of death."  All have their thoughts and opinions ... none really know why.  And why at every meal.  Every.  Single.  One.  Honestly, most seemed surprised when it dawned on them that they could not think of a single exception to the rule.  I remember after my grandmother's passing, just being a lad of 12 years, I asked my father if I had to eat the mostocolli.  Grandma's funeral was held in a particularly disgusting funeral home in a particularly disgusting town on a particularly disgusting day.  It was the kind of day grandma's are supposed to be buried on.  Thunder. Lightening. Hail. As if that were not enough all of her children were fighting the fight over who-gets-what.  (A time honored tradition in our brood.)  I did not want any stuff.  I just wanted a pass on the mostocolli.  My dad looked down at me from his superior position in the chair next to mine, his hand came up behind me and cuffed me a good one upside the back of the head as he said, "What?  Didn't you love your grandmother?  Shut up and eat your mostocolli."

We live.  We die.  We eat mostocolli.

Today I was at the gym and I was sweating.  I do not like sweating.  But my doctor tells me that for every minute I sweat I will add a minute to the end of my life.  She is the same doctor that told me that bacon will give you worms.  My doctor is a liar.  I think.  But I'm not sure.  And so I sweat.  I glanced  up at one of the televisions in the gym meant to distract you from the pain. Some kind of daytime drama was on.  Clearly they had all come from a funeral because they were in a large hall eating ... mostocolli.  And then the program ended with one of those montage's where they show you all of these pictures of the dead guys life that are intended to make you weepy.  Except that I did not know the corpse.  I guess it was because I was not emotionally involved that I noticed that this guy ... this unlucky dead guy ... had lived the mother-of-all mostocolli lives.  I mean, if those were the high-lights ... I pity those who had to hang around him on the normal days.  He was, putting it mildly, boring. Bland. Dull. A Ho-hum-human.

And that is when the light came on.  They were eating mostocolli because it was indicative of the type of life they were remembering.  The guy had lived a mostocolli life.


I began running a quick check on the lives of some I had buried.  Not all of them. Certainly not YOUR loved one. But the ones who came to mind?  They had all lived mostocolli lives. Every one of them. Oh man. The implications are enormous. You have to work out your own but here is what it comes down to for me.

My funeral meal? Prime Rib.  I want to live my life now in such a way that the cooks will have to dig out new recipes. I want my kids to have call a family meeting before they put me down because they see the need to hire a chef. I want them to have to put together a guest list because they can't afford to feed everybody who wants to come. And I don't want them to come just for the gourmet meal. Oh, no. No, no, no.  I want them to come because they had a blast watching a life lived out that called for this kind of feast. I haven't come close to attaining that. Not yet. I'm hoping I'm maybe about to rise out of mostocolli into Salsbury Steak. I'm not sure which one tastes less. That means there's a very long way to go. To quote my friend, Nathan, I have a massive frown-ey face over that. But like that guy Paul said one time ... "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12 NIV) I'm traveling. From mostocolli to holey-moley.

Give me prime rib and/or give me death!