Sunday, July 31, 2005

Inadequate Agents of Change

"I'll keep the mohawk until we stop killing people abroad." (musician Eddie Vedder, quoted about his hair in the April 11, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone)

I'll wait while you read that first line again. I have time. Now get a picture in your head: a woman, graying, tired, standing with a sign on the Washington Monument Mall. Her sign declares "Protesting for Nuclear Disarmament since 1981." And she has been. Every day.

I'm tempted to ask her how it is going... but that would be cruel. While I often think cruel thoughts my inbuilt braking system (tuned regularly by Bible study and accountability groups) usually traps them before them become actions or words. I have learned that when I am faced with something that makes me want to leap into spasms of ridicule I should wait a moment and then ask "What can I learn from this?"

I know that wearing a mohawk will not stop killing abroad, or even locally. It might increase giggling, but it won't stop violent men from exercising their violent thoughts. Holding up a sign, even for twenty four years, will not cause nations to disarm. So far, so good, but now we need to go to Louisiana.

I just spent three days in southwest Louisiana with a tiny church in a small town. The nearest (tiny) mall is 55 miles away. Each of the members has a story and you wouldn't trade your life with a single one of them. Most came from a far right church across town: one that reveled in disfellowship and refused to take back those who repented. The refugees do not hate the church of Christ; they still feel a part of it. They weren't disfellowshipped but their friends or people they had studied with were. Others weren't welcome at that other church because of the color of their skin or their marital or pharmacological history. Now they gather, twenty or thirty at a time, including kids, and want to worship the Lord. They have the building -- rented, but nice enough -- a selection of praise CD's (acapella!) to serve as song starters, and some of the most sincere hearts and true spirits I have run across in some time. The good news: they know that having a building, worshipping right, and owning a communion set is not enough to take their town and a nearby Army base for Christ. They want to break into the hearts of the poor and downcast, the white and black, the locals and transient military types -- everybody. After some time doing church in their building they know they need to do something else.

Great! Way too many of us think that if we do what we do and the world doesn't come, the world must not be ready to hear the truth. Rubbish. The world is craving the truth like never before. People are so very hungry for Christ but they do not expect to find Him in the buildings they pass on their way to work. I told the little group that if they wanted to be the church in their community they were going to have to escape their building. Paths were worn in the grass to the side of their hall, worn by the comings and goings of people from the poorer, government housing units to the Family Dollar store or maybe to waitress at Ryan's. I told them to get out by that path and talk to those who walk by. Sing and pray by the path. Offer anyone who comes by not only your hand by also your heart and your time. Take them to work, give them something to drink, offer to babysit their children, open up your wallets and share what is inside so that they can buy some food or clothes, bring them into your home and make sure they know they can drop by anytime. Release your hold on the things of this world, beginning with the building, and live and give as if Jesus were coming back tomorrow.

When tracts or filmstrips don't work, it isn't because people don't like truth. It is because tracts and filmstrips aren't the best way to communicate the gospel anymore (and I will not disparage the great good they have done in many communities over the years). It used to be that we could argue someone into the baptistry and have a good chance of keeping them, but not anymore. Now you have to show them Jesus, in their homes, in their neighborhoods, before they are interested in visiting our buildings and seeing us worship Him. Today, more people are won by our characters than by our arguments, or our programs, or our worship styles. Emphasizing the things that aren't working is like.... well... wearing a mohawk until the killing stops.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Because of a Red Haired Girl

Charlie Brown had that little red haired girl who won his heart and starred in one of the recurring themes of that classic "Peanuts" comic strip.

This isn't about her.

This little red haired girl went to school where I did, both of us attending the second grade in an old yellow brick school building that smelt of glue, dust, chalk, and kids. This girl had tangled, wild hair that poked out in all directions. Her clothes were old and poor. Sometimes they, and she, was dirty. The little boys and girls in our school marked her as someone to be teased, tormented, and isolated... and that is exactly what happened. They called her names -- most of which, blessedly, I have forgotten. I knew it was wrong to join in their games and make that little red haired girl's life miserable, but I did it anyway. I briefly toyed with trying to speak up for her, but I didn't have the nerve.

Today, I am a successful minister in a successful ministry. I have a lovely wife and two kids who are better than I could have hoped. They are good looking, well behaved, clean, and popular. They are everything that little girl wasn't. I go on good vacations and have the money to contribute lavishly to mission works and charity... but I am powerless to find that girl and apologize. They didn't publish books of photos for second graders back then and I would not recognize her name if I heard it. Neither it -- nor she -- was important enough to me for any of that "name remembering" stuff.

I thought of her again this week.

My son in law, Josh Graves (, asked me to go with him to speak to some at risk teens in downtown Detroit. As soon as I found that my schedule allowed it I agreed to go. I knew his college roommate (Mike Robinson) was a social worker and counselor there, but that's about it. I thought I'd tag along, listen to Josh, visit for an hour, and be gone. Nope. The day we were to drive down Josh stuck his head in my office and asked if I could go early and eat lunch with the kids. I said yes and then he said, "You know you're supposed to give them a speech? Not a long one -- maybe fifteen minutes?" I had no idea, but decided I could pull it off. When we got to the facility and saw the locks and fences I found out that this was a place where at risk kids -- those who have already been through the court system and been found guilty of at least one crime. Here, at this school, they are given the chance to learn skills to survive lives that are broken -- shattered and tossed away, often through the fault of others.

It was career day and Josh and I were to give speeches on why we were ministers. I couldn't think of anything that would interest this group less. Here I was, an old white guy, and there they were. One's mother recently died with AIDS. Another, right beside her, lost her mother to a crack overdose a few months ago. Some had fathers who died during crimes but most had no fathers. One's mother was a stripper. They were fifteen or sixteen and had learned fear, mistrust, and anger. They knew pain, abandonment, and lies better than most of us know the books of the Bible. Josh and I gave our little speeches. They seemed to go well. I got the kids laughing and happy -- a few of the boys and girls even came up and hugged me. They told us their names and that is where I heard from Andrea.

I won't tell you Andrea's story. That's for her to do one day. But she sat there ramrod straight, determined to get this last chance right. She said, with pride, that she wanted to get her high school diploma and then become a doctor. When I offered to help her get into college at Ohio State (where I am on adjunct staff and have lots of connections) but she declined, informing me that she intended to go to Yale. There was no irony in her reply. She was friendly, but tough and ready to prove she wasn't something to throw away.

After four or five hours, Josh and I drove out of the war zone of inner Detroit where you have to order your fast food through bullet proof glass and it is given to you in a lazy susan rounder where you never have access to the individual across the counter. We left behind the kids, their wonderful social workers, and the fences with barbed wire wrapped around the top. We'd left them our addresses and told them we would come down anytime they needed us and we would use our connections to help them in any way possible for as long as they wanted to stay in touch with us. We meant it. Josh meant it because he is a wise and kind young man with a huge heart for the hurt and dispossessed.

I meant it because I failed that little red haired girl 42 years ago and I wasn't going to fail these kids -- especially someone like Andrea. I asked her what else she wanted to do -- other than going to Yale and becoming a doctor. She smiled a beautiful smile and said, "I want to be a poet. I think I could be a good poet." I told her I thought so, too. "I believe in you," I said, "and anything you need from me, you've got. I don't think you're going to need much of my help, but know that I am there for you anyway."

Because God loves young black ladies with nightmare homes and smelly little red haired girls and ministers who have no right to know Him, but who are saved by Him anyway.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

God At Work

I need to share a letter with you and let it be the blog this week. Tom Langley is one of the best men I know. He and his lovely wife, Angie, have served as missionaries in Romania for two different stints (I believe it was about five years each time). His heart for God and missions overwhelms me and humbles me. He is now one of the leaders of World English Institute (WEI) a worldwide evangelistic effort of the churches of Christ. That is one of the two mission works my wife and I are leading a cruise to support next January. I consider Tom's life to be a blessing to many thousands all over the globe and that is why this letter this morning shocked me and drove me to my knees to thank the Father for being at work in this world. Here is the email forwarded to me by Tom's friends.

"In case anyone is wondering, I was in London the morning of the terrorist attacks. I spent the night of the 6th in a hotel in Central London. The city was crazy with celebration after winning the 2012 Olympics. The next morning I had to get back to Heathrow to catch my plane home. That very morning I was two steps down into the subway when I looked at my watch and sudenly had a strong impulse to go shopping instead of traveling to the airport early. So, I backed out of the subway and started looking for a shop to buy a shirt to wear home. All of my clothes were dirty and needed washing. Thirty minutes later when I finally decided to take the subway to the airport, everyone was coming out of the Underground and the Tube workers were saying that there was a computer problem and all the lines were closed. There were thousands of people on the streets and sirens were going off everywhere. I ran from one Tube station to the next hoping for a working line out of the city headed to Heathrow. Still unaware that there was a terrorist attack, I saw a man laying on the ground and being attended to by several medical and emergency personnel. I then frantically jumped on a bus to Paddington station in hopes of getting the overland train express to Heathrow.

"People on the street were saying the overland trains were still running. While I was on that bus, passengers on their cell phones starting telling everyone that a city bus had exploded near us. Many people got off the bus at the next stop. I decided to take my chances with several others and stay on the bus. I finally made it to the above ground Paddington train station only to discover that ALL transportation out of London was closed. Unbelievably, in the midst of hundreds of people trying to get a taxi, I was able to get in a taxi with 4 others also wanting to go to Heathrow. It was on this taxi ride that we started hearing news reports on the radio that this was indeed a massive terrorist attack and that many had been killed and hundreds wounded. I got to the airport just before boarding and was able to catch my flight to Chicago. It was really strange watching the news reports at the airport in Chicago that evening, and knowing just hours earlier I was in the middle of all that chaos.

"As it turns out, the deadliest explosion occured on the very line I was to take to Heathrow that morning. According to the time of the explosion, I would likely have beenon that train had I not impulsively decided to buy a new shirt for my trip home. I didn't find a new shirt, but I think I'll keep the old sloppy one I had to wear home, and, of course, I am grateful to God for for His protection. "

And I am thankful, too, Tom, that a great servant of God was spared. My heart goes out to those who lost family and friends to the islamofascists, but it is amazing to me to hear the stories of survival and notice how many of those who DIDN'T die are the very people who will give their lives in service to the lost and hurting.

Friday, July 15, 2005


Just some real quick bits and pieces before the maelstorm of the weekend! With three morning services to get them in, Sundays are a bit of a marathon -- and that for a man whose spiritual gift is the ability to sit on the couch and not move for long periods of time. Or, as my wife says, I am the only person in the world in imminent danger of being overrun by a glacier. Compared to me, sloths are jittery.

Check out my son-in-law's blog ( Josh Graves is a great fellow and a future star in our tribe.

In the last two weeks three books have absolutely captivated me. Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven" has a great deal to teach all of us who were brought up in authoritarian faiths. Giles Milton is one of the most interesting historians alive today and his "White Gold" is just the latest window on an untold story in our past. This book deals with the enslavement of European and American whites by the Islamic states (principally Morocco) between 1500 and 1790. It reads like a thriller and is one of the best sourced history books I've read in years. The third book is one of the most important books of our time and the odds that it will get wide publicity are nil, for its subject does not strike people as interesting. The book is by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and is entitled "Freakonomics." Get this book! I will quote from it from time to time. These geniuses ask questions nobody else ever thought of such as "What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents? Why do drug dealers live with their moms?" And many, many more. And they answer the questions!

I will be interviewing some folk and calling some others as Rochester church continues to search for a youth minister and a worship minister. It is amazing how hard it is to find good people, and then talk them into moving north of Detroit, and then convince them that having me as their pulpit minister will not (probably) scar them for life.

And lastly: my record continues! I have a perfect record in not making great financial choices! Three years ago I bought a Ford Excursion. It is a fantastic vehicle in every way except for the fact that the V-10 gas engine burns a tad of fuel. Like 20% of the output of Venezuela. I recently went online to see what it was worth today and found that it had lost 50% of its value due to the recent surge in gasoline prices. Yes! I would hate to think that I might have made a good buying decision. That would ruin my reputation. For a guy who is often thought to just work one day a week and it still takes ten men to carry his money -- I can't seem to find much of it laying about the place. Good thing, too, or I might start confusing this place with heaven.

Cheers, God bless, and I'll talk to you about something more specific next week!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Fear Is Not An Option

We were on the Carnival Glory cruise ship and knew our captain was trying to outrun the hurricane. One of the passengers -- worried, anxious -- asked me if I thought if we would be safe, or if the hurricane would catch us. I am not sure why people, when they find out I am a minister, assume I know so much about weather and other shards of the mundane. I keep trying to tell them "I don't know! I'm in sales, not management" but it doesn't always take. This time I merely said, "I refuse to be harmed by something named Dennis."

If the hurricane had been named "Thor: eater of souls" or "The Dark Abyss", then maybe I would have shown a bit more concern. But "Dennis"?

Why are so many of us so afraid so much of the time? I finally might have a clue. I don't watch daytime TV and when I watch morning news it is generally the Fox News Channel or one of the other "all news all the time" channels so it was instructive when our ship's TV only piped in the morning shows of NBC, ABC, and, periodically, CBS. I flipped from one to the other in amazement. It was nothing but a fear-fest every morning. Are your kids safe? Is the water supply safe? Are terrorists in the neighborhood? Is your car crashworthy? Is your husband cheating on you? Will gas prices continue to rise? Even the news about politics or Natalee Holloway was always framed with dire sounding music and questions that made it seem our safety, our lifestyles, and our families could be in danger.

And how about all those evening news plugs? "Your family may be in danger from a common household item! News at eleven." Wait a minute: if my family is in danger from something in the house, tell me now. If you make me wait until eleven, the danger can't be very great, can it? When was the last time they said, "A deadly Black Mamba snake is in your house. We'll tell you exactly where in five hours!" (or after this important message from Anti-Venom 'R Us)

We do this in church, too. How many sermons are fear-inducing? How many times do we try to scare our people straight? "Jesus could come back at any minute!" Yes... but isn't that a good thing? I can remember preachers telling us that Jesus could come back before the end of the sermon and my little seven year old brain thinking, "Sure, the odds of that keep getting better since the sermon keeps going on so long!" What they really meant was that Jesus could come back before we sang the invitation song and gave people a chance to do formal, public repentance or baptism. They had a point: everyone needs Jesus to get to heaven. Nobody goes without Him; that isn't even open to debate! But the constant barraging of scare tactics only worked for awhile. It drove some to apoplexy and others to apathy; that's what constant fear mongering does. That is why some churches are losing members. It isn't because people don't want to hear the truth. It is because they want to hear the WHOLE truth. The major networks are losing audience, but the total viewership of TV is up. People are just abandoning the fear mongerers for people who will tell them the other bits of the news.

I don't want us to go the other way and say "peace, peace" when there is no peace, but let's remember one salient point: the command Jesus gave more than all other commands combined (check it out. I did) was "Fear not." Stay by Jesus and there is no reason to fear.

It was October 1993 and I and my two small children were in the car headed to a resort where I was doing a devotional for the West Virginia football team before their championship game against Miami. It was dark and rainy as we approached the Cheat Lake bridge. At the worst possible moment the semi-truck beside us swung into our lane and rammed us into the bridge at 60mph. We spun and hit several times, the third time so hard that my seat belt broke and my knees made new holes in the dash. I can remember that it hurt, but my clearest recollection is how calm I felt as I said aloud (my kids told me they heard me), without fear, "Oh. I guess I'm done." I wasn't aware of how big an impression that made on them until years later. Daddy wasn't afraid of dying. He was ready.

It was September 11th, 2001. I lived in Myrtle Beach, SC where some of my neighbors thought my son and I were gun nuts, perhaps even members of some right wing militia. They were aggressive pacifists who considered us cave dwelling, knuckle dragging, Wal-Mart shopping, Republican voting, evolutionary throwbacks. And then the towers were knocked down by islamofascists. Some of their husbands were trapped on business trips out of state and could not get back. There was fear in the air. They came to our house and asked if their families could stay with us. We said, "sure" and brought them in. One of them asked, "What do we do now? What happens next?" My response was, "I don't know what's going to happen. I'm not in charge of that. What I can say is that fear is not an option. We do not need to be afraid of evil people. Let them be afraid of us."

My Lord will save us. We have no need of fear. I have no time for the morning fear-parade on TV. I will not try to scare people into heaven. I will let them know the certain terror of dying without Jesus, but only to contrast it with the blessed, wonderful knowledge that Jesus WANTS to save us and has gone through SO much to make it so. We can live in peace. We can be peaceful, laugh (even in church!), and radiate joy, for we are an obedient people and our Lord told us - time and again -- "Fear not."

You have permission to live in joy. Fear is not an option. Rejoice always.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Trainwrecks and Filthy Rags

My father used to ask me, "As an outsider, Patrick, what do you think of the human race?" He wasn't being unkind; just observant. I have always felt like that strange fellow in any Fellini film. You know the one: people are having conversations, playing volleyball on the beach, etc. and there he is, the man in the hat and suit, walking through the middle of them, out of place, unobserved. This sense of dislocation has been a defining part of my life since my earliest memories. With that said, you might be ready for the rest of this post. Read it all, though, for you if read only part of it you will think that I am a perfect jerk and that is not true. Nobody's perfect....

The absurd and I are buddies. I like to spot "what's wrong with this picture" moments, like the one where Kami and I are eating lunch in Pancho's Backyard (Cozumel's best Mexican restaurant, by the way) soaking up the atmosphere and listening to a marimba band play the Mexican Hat Dance and other Mexican (tourist) favorites when all of a sudden they started playing Strangers In The Night. It was noon, but that wasn't the point. I was just coming down from the patch (see last post) so this was just strange enough for me to find hilarious. It was a day for strange events.

There was a Chinese family on board the ship, a father, mother and three children. I never saw them smile. In fact, while the rest of them had expressionless faces, the father looked angry most of the time. Every morning, without fail, they would go to the Lido deck to the incredible buffet laid out there for breakfast... and all of them would get one bowl of Froot Loops. That's it. They would then, without a word, take them to a table and eat them slowly, without comment, sit a moment longer, and then leave. Every wonderful breakfast food you could imagine was waiting there for them each day... and they had Fruit Loops.

We walked into the dining room that night -- after having successfully dodged Cindy and with Dennis on the horizon -- and the background music was the theme for Titanic.

The decor on Carnival ships has to be seen to be believed. Think "Psychedelic Mosque" or "The Sociopaths Got Control of the Crayola Box." I am a shrink and have been one for some time, but I cannot imagine the brains of those who put those colors, images, angles, and lights together. Yet, they are making millions and most of the cruisers were repeat customers (and so were we) so which one of us is the crazy one....?

The talent show was a trainwreck... but they didn't know it. The five (who passed auditions, for goodness sake!) performers would have been slapped by Paula Abdul on the first night of "American Idol" but you could tell they thought they were wonderful, and so did their families. One act was a group of oriental people singing 70's disco tunes, heavy on the Kool and The Gang standards. Their rendition of "Celebrate good times, c'mon!" will linger in my brain long after the scopolomine has left.

Did I mention the "hairiest chest" competition? That was bizarre but, hey, that woman from Arkansas won it fair and square! (just kidding)

At the end of the day we returned to our cabin to find that the cleaning ninjas had been there again. You can't leave for five minutes without them getting in there, straightening everything, and leaving a towel animal on the bed. It is really cool -- but weird. We never saw them, but we could tell they had been there! That night, it was a towel monkey they had posed hanging from our lights. I told my wife, "Look! It's a French monkey!" She asked me how I knew it was a French monkey and I said, "Well, it's hands are already in surrender position..."

When darkness fell and I stood alone on the balcony of our room, I talked to God about what I had seen and recalled the words of Jesus telling us that after we have done everything as well as we can do it -- it is all really just filthy rags. It might look great to us, but to someone with a different point of view, someone with greater wisdom or more experience, it is almost comically bad. I had tried to be a good husband that day, kind to every person I met, more than generous in tipping the guides, encouraging to the newlyweds who sat across from us, and so on. I had presented my best to God, but I am certain that, from His viewpoint, He could have picked it apart as "out of tune", "not quite on pitch", "inappropriate setting", ad infinitum. In other words, He could have found me nothing more than an object of amusement, somewhat to be pitied. He had given me a buffet of blessings and I had eaten my Fruit Loops and moved on.

It doesn't take any talent or courage to be a cynic. It is not a sign of intellectual superiority to be able to find fault with others. It doesn't make me a good man just because I notice what is wrong with others.

Tomorrow, I may not do much better. But I plan to at least check out the buffet.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

What Did That Tree Just Say?

We just got back from eight days dodging and outrunning first Tropical Storm Cindy and then Hurricane Dennis. We had lots of fun, saw lots of places, and had a fantastic captain who knew his stuff. I love to cruise, but I get sea sick easily so I always take medication with me. My drug of choice has been meclazine (Bonine) but this time I thought "Enough with the pills! I'll use the patch and not have to worry about missing a pill." The scopolomine patch is widely used with great success... but my experience was a bit different.

After the events described below, I unfolded and read the information sheet that came with the packet of patches. It warned that, in very rare incidences, it could possibly cause hallucinations. No points for guessing who got them.

I was sitting at the breakfast table, looking at the beautiful ocean beyond and chowing down on various breakfast bits when I noticed that my wooden table was melting. Bits of it were dripping, slowly, down the center post leg and puddling on the floor. I was dimly aware that this was impossible, but I was intrigued enough to keep looking to see what would happen next. My milk carton twisted and hopped closer to the oatmeal bowl and seemed to want me to do something with it... but I couldn't make out what it was saying. Yes, you read that right. I was right in the middle of a Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds incident. Later that day I would be in a tour bus in Cozumel, trying to listen to our guide, Cesar, while outside the world had turned into a Peter Maxx painting. I wasn't panicking, for I understood what was happening and why. I was fascinated by the situation while at the same time wondering a) how long this was going to go on, b) how long I could keep everybody else from knowing what was going on and, c) how I could get the stupid tree behind me to shut up.

A day and a bit later, the hallucinations stopped. At some level, I will miss them, but I know life is better without them. I wish the rest of the hallucinations would stop -- you know, the ones that say I have to get to that store, buy that thing, see that person, arrange the furniture... all the things that we think are so very important, but are really just hallucinations of the worst kind.

While we were at sea some cowards -- murderous, twisted, evil cowards -- set off bombs in London. All at once the hallucinations of the Londoners were ended. Not so important anymore were questions of making a new business deal, getting to work on time, who likes who, and if these pants make me look fat. All of those concerns -- petty, mundane, trite -- were blasted away; the hallucinations fell away and we were forced to deal with real questions of life, death, and what is really important.

Nancy Pelosi declared a week or so ago that the war in Afghanistan was over. Not so for those who are fighting it, some of whom lost their lives last week. Maybe Nancy realized that she was hallucinating, maybe not, but it would be nice if the rest of us stopped hallucinating. Much of what we know for sure ... isn't true. Most of the arguments that we bring to every blog, every lectureship, every family meeting aren't important, substantial or meaningful. They are hallucinations. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are real. Our duty before them to believe, love, and serve is real. Most of the rest of the clutter of our world is just a pile of hallucinations.

I determined to dump the patch and ride out the hallucinations with as much of my dignity as I could salvage (it's hard to pull this off when a tree kept whispering, "Psst! Patrick! Over here!") and to come back to reality. I am also determined to do this in my personal, financial, spiritual, and love life. Drop the hallucinations. Get back to the real.

By the way, the information sheet on scopolomine says that those who have the hallucinations will often get them again for awhile several days after taking the medicine. Well, that's something to look forward to, I guess! I'll post a bunch of random thoughts in a few days, but for now I need to put a couch pillow over the ottoman's mouth. That piece of furniture seems to be developing a real attitude and the lamp has asked me to do something about it......