Thursday, September 28, 2006

In Appreciation

I don't know how anyone can be a head coach. Sure, I understand the love of the game. I understand about working with young players and molding them to be better men and women. But for every coach, there is an entire herd of people who could do a better job of coaching -- just ask them!

I remember my Grandpa. He was a big Dodger fan, and a big fan of the local high school basketball team. But he wasn't a big fan of the coaches. You may not realize this, but my Grandpa could outcoach the legendary Tommy Lasorda AND call the shots better than a high school basketball coach with more than 700 career victories. He told me so.

"What is that coach doing? I can coach better than that!"

I couldn't tell you how many times I heard him say that. And my Grandpa wasn't unique. Every coach has his or her detractors. Lose and game, and people immediately start asking for your replacement. One mistake and some folks will never let you forget it. Two mistakes and you're the most worthless person walking God's green earth.

If the team finishes the season 4-12, the coach should be canned. Never mind that half the players are hurt and the other half have no experience. Forget that pesky little detail that the players aren't really very good. Fire the coach!

Of course, a few coaches reach untouchable status over time. But even the untouchable coaches have had to deal with the occasional moron who thought themselves to be much brighter than they actually were.

A coach with a mediocre team is never appreciated. A coach with a great team usually doesn't get any credit for the team's success. And pity the poor coach who ends the season 4-12. Or worse.

And don't even get me started on how unappreciated the referees and umpires are. Somebody's got to make the calls. But, oh the abuse those poor people take!

There are many times when I don't feel especially appreciated. In my secular job, I could make 10,000 decisions flawlessly, but when I make that inevitable mistake... well, let's just say that people immediately and repeatedly let me know all about it.

As a husband, I know I am sometimes taken for granted -- just as I sometimes take my wife for granted. Man, I hate it when I'm just as guilty as she is.

Maybe the role in life where I feel the most appreciated is as a pastor. I know that people in my congregation will specifically seek me out to tell me that they appreciate a sermon or a visit or a prayer. And I'll admit that even though I am not a pastor so that people will appreciate what I do, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel like God is using what I am doing. God can work though this twisted and bloated mess of flesh and bone and sin that I am.

Wouldn't it be a good idea if we all told someone how much we appreciate what that person does? It would be great to feel that rush of encouraging another person. Even if that person doesn't seem to appreciate the effort, we could still give that encouragement. Isn't it odd that we would think we should be shown some appreciation for showing someone else some appreciation?

Or maybe it's just all about learning how to be selfless. I want to be able to do my best or to do what is right without the need for approval. I should be able to give money to a good ministry without wondering how to get a proper receipt for a tax credit. I should be able to volunteer my time without wondering what I'll be getting back in return.

If I donate money to my local PBS station during the pledge drive (which lasts around 360 days each year), the station will send me a gift of appreciation. Maybe it's a DVD or a CD of whatever concert the pledge drive is interrupting. Maybe it's a stuffed Barney toy. Whatever. If I truly appreciate what that PBS station is broadcasting, why would I need a gift to show appreciation for my own appreciation?

One last thought: If we really want to show our appreciation, shouldn't we start with our Creator? Like it or not, everything we have comes from Him. I certainly appreciate that.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


He sat there with a sad, yet nervous expression on his face. I understood the emotions, you see, Randy is a pastor.

Randy was talking with the editor of the local newspaper. He arranged the meeting because of calls which had been made to the newspaper's staff. Apparently some people at Randy's church are very, very bitter.

The editor told Randy that on two recent occasions, he had received calls suggesting that the paper send a reporter to see and expose the horrible things going on at Cross Church. What horrible things, you ask? The callers apparently wouldn't say, nor would they leave a name.

Most papers these days won't print a letter to the editor if the author doesn't have the guts to sign it. That policy makes sense, really. After all, if you won't stand by your words enough to put your name to them, what real value do they have? I know all about the idea of protecting identities, as most of us do on the web, but a public forum isn't for people wearing disguises.

Anyway, the editor reported that he had received a third call over the weekend. This anonymous caller suggested that there was a situation at Cross Church that was just like the situation at another local church. The "other church" the caller referenced had just fired a youth pastor who had been having sexual relationships with two girls from his youth group. That call startled the editor, but it really startled Randy. And if you think it startled Randy, you can only imagine what it did to Randy's youth pastor!

There is no youth pastor seducing underage girls at Cross Church. There is no scandal worthy of a newspaper expose at Cross Church. So why the phone calls?

There are a group of mostly older church folks who don't like the fact that Cross Church has added a contemporary service. That's it. Oh, the horror! A handful of people are becoming quite a handful, and it looks like at least two have taken to insinuating that the church is scandal-plagued because the church is offering a service without The Old Rugged Cross played on a pipe organ. It's not as if Cross Church isn't still offering the traditional hymn/pass the plate/long sermon/closing hymn service. The complainers still have their service untouched. They object to (1) having a second service, and/or (2) the worship style.

Friends, that's just bitterness that has taken these "fine upstanding, mature saints" and turned them into nasty, vindictive, lying embarassments to God.

I've known plenty of people who have changed churches due to pastoral failings or disagreements of buildings or gossip within the congregation or any number of other reasons. Of those people, some are sincerely praying for their former church, their former pastor, and former fellow parishoners. Then there are others whose live is filled with bitterness.

Plenty of people have been burned by the church -- or more correctly, it's people. Still, through the hurt, they are not burdened by the bitter feelings or the desire for vengeance. They are able to look down from their own crosses at those who have caused the pain to say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Then there are those who are more concerned with their own power and position within the congregation than anything else. Some are protective of such trivial things as the order of service. Others will fight to the spiritual death to keep pews in the sanctuary instead of folding or stacking chairs. And, of course, there are plenty who will enforce their own rules of who should be in "their" church and who should not. God help the person who visits that church with the faint odor of cigarettes or with a reputation that doesn't measure up to these bitter, misguided churchgoers.

That's a big problem in the church today -- more people are too concerned about their religion and yet are completely unconcerned with their faith. I wish the anonymous phone callers would take a time out from their cardiac arrest over the presence of a tamborine in the sanctuary and realize that. But I'm not holding out much hope.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mark of the Beast

Time was running close. The kids program at church was less than an hour away, and I still had to pick up my oldest boy from high school football practice. My wife and daughter had been working all day in preparation for the new horse, coming this weekend. Handing me two empty feed bags, my beloved asked me to take them to the burn barrels where we get rid of some of our trash.

It was a short walk to the back of the yard, right along a ditch. In the eight years we've lived here, I've taken that walk countless times. Today it was different.

Earlier this week, I had cleaned out the barrels and got rid of a bunch of trash. When I reached the trash cans, I couldn't see the bottom of the cans or the thin layer of goo on the bottom. What I saw when I glanced at the can was what appeared to be a cat. I knew that our one outdoor cat was up by the house, so I was a bit confused. Then I took a closer look. It was mostly black. But there was this troublesome white pattern on its back.

This was not a cat. This was Pepe LePew's younger cousin. A real life skunk.

Now I'm a country boy. I've happened upon all kinds of wild animals in my life. But I've never stumbled across a live skunk in the wild. I've stumbled across plenty of dead skunks. Those are usually pretty easy to notice from half a mile away. But this one was not lying between the dotted yellow lines on the crown of the asphault. This one was looking up at me with tiny black eyes, as shocked seeing me as I was seeing it.

What did I do? I ran. I'm not ashamed to say it.

I wasn't afraid of old Stinky leaping out of the barrel, onto my neck and ripping out my jugular. I was pretty sure the skunk wasn't going to jump on my leg and chew it to bits. But I was afraid that Mr. LePew was going to turn and fire, and that I would be forced to call off Wednesday night kids church because of fumes.

The two bags I was carrying ended up on the ground. I ended up doing my best Carl Lewis impression and made it back to the house without so much as a bit of body odor. I avoided what I knew I had to avoid. I've had dogs who met up with skunks who didn't turn and run. I've tried to kill that smell with tomato juice and countless other home stench remedies. My fear was not a physical attack. My fear was being a marked man. That smell doesn't go away easily.

Whenever I hear someone hypothesizing about the "mark of the beast", I usually either turn away or I catch myself daydreaming about something else. Because from what I read in Revelation, the mark of the beast is contrasted with the mark of the lamb. I've never heard anyone boldly predict what the mark of the lamb may be. Perhaps because the mark of the lamb (and most likely the mark of the beast as well) are not visible marks, but invisible signs of our personal choice of what to do with Jesus Christ.

I've been "marked" by Jesus, yet there are still times when it seems like the smell has worn off, to coin a phrase. I just don't smell enough like Christ. One day last week, a person really inflated my ego, telling me that I appeared to act a lot like Christ. Later that afternoon, I said something I shouldn't have said in an offhanded way, and the person I said it to expressed surprise that those words had come from my mouth. I had "blown my witness" in the blink of an eye. It was like the "smell" of Christ had been doused with some kind of super-charged Odor-Eaters.

I want to bear the marks of Jesus Christ. Yet I find that it only takes an instant for me to take on the marks making me resemble the rest of the world. It's not often that I'm swift enough to avoid being sprayed by the stench of sinfulness. Skunks I can outrun. Sin is another matter.

Lord, give me Your strength. Change my heart so that my life will be marked by You.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Wind Chasing

"Meaningless! Meaningless!"
says the Teacher.
"Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless."

What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,
"Look! This is something new"?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-14

I often find myself wondering about the way I spend my time. I'm pretty sure I don't make the best use of my time. And I'm not even sure that spending time wondering about the way I spend my time is a great way to spend my time. But now I'm confused. But I'll continue.

A lot of bloggers eventually write a few posts about whether it blogging is a good use of one's time. This post is not one of those posts. Instead I'm thinking more about the other things in my life. Not the stuff that actually has some sort of value, but the stupid things I do. The picture to the right is not of me. It's actually some woman setting the world's record for... get this... underwater ironing. That's what I said. Read it again if you like. Un-der-wa-ter-i-ron-ing. This dear lady is at a depth of around 100 meters in scuba gear, with a folding ironing board, an iron and a mental deficiency.

Let's think about this for just a moment. (Again, it's probably not the best use of my time or your time, but humor me.) She is ironing. Underwater. Generally, that's not the best way to iron. When I actually iron something, I usually start with a mostly-dry item of clothing. I'm assuming the iron isn't plugged in somewhere, as I don't see a long orange extension cord, or any signs that the diver is being electricuted. Then, it appears that the diver is actually ironing -- a t-shirt! As I've told more than one person, if you're ironing t-shirts, you need to get yourself a hobby.

Putting it all together, it's ridiculous to think that a woman is actually diving the depth of a football field into the ocean to iron a t-shirt in the most ineffective way imaginable. It's perhaps even more ridiculous that a photographer bothered to dive down 100 meters to take a picture of this woman!

As easy as it is to make fun of Miss Underwater Ironer, I realize that I'm no better. I'm not as hard on myself as Solomon was. I don't buy into the whole "everything is meaningless" argument. The two days I spent wandering around the county fair this weekend was time spent with family and friends. The time blogging helps me explore my relationship with God. My time reading blogs does the same thing.

But there's the hour or two in front of the television set. Or playing a computer game. Or surfing You Tube to see what silliness has been documented for the whole DSL-Connection-or-faster-world to see. Am I making the best use of my time? Obviously not. Most of the time I'm doing my share of wind chasing.

Why is it that time-wasters are able to climb up the ladder of priority in my life? (and I'm assuming yours also). True, I'm not ironing t-shirts underwater, but by the same token, I don't know how to scuba dive. Shoot, I barely know how to iron!

I wonder where the right mix is. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," I've always heard. Of course, I've always heard that from people who don't want to work! I wonder just how much of my life I've wasted, chasing the wind.

Paul wrote that whatever we do, we are to do it to the best of our ability as though we are doing it for God. I'm not quite sure Paul was thinking about underwater ironing when he wrote that, but is there a place for diversion? Is diversion like so many other things in life -- good in moderation, bad in overindulgence?

All I know is that I don't make the best use of my time, and I don't believe God is always pleased with the way I spend my waking hours. That is something I must be praying about.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Family Tradition

I am very proud of my daddy's name
although his kinda music and mine ain't exactly the same
stop and think it over put yourself in my position
if i get stoned and sing all night long
it's a family tradition

Don't ask me Hank, why do you drink?
(Hank) why do you roll smoke?
Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?
If I'm down in a Honky-Tonk
Some ol' slicks tryin to give me corrections
I'll say leave me alone, I'm singin all night long
it's a family tradition.

(From Family Tradition by Hank Williams, Jr.)

Ol' Hank loves to pass off his rowdy ways on upholding the ways of his daddy. But I've been thinking about traditions lately, and I wonder how many are simply excuses, rationalizations and justifications.

I talked about tradition with a couple of different people yesterday. One man is carrying on the family tradition of making root beer and selling it at county fairs. His grandparents started doing it in 1939. His aunt got into the act in 1948. He helped out after his grandfather passed away in 1962, but didn't launch fully into the tradition until 1976. He's still making and selling the stuff, thirty years later, proudly carrying on the tradition begun by his grandfather almost 70 years before.

Another lady is county fair nut enthusiast. At the age of 77, she still is at the fair every hour that the grounds are open to the public. Why? Her family used to work there when she grew up. She and her sisters would open the gates in the morning, sell tickets for the amusements all day, then close the gates at night. "It was our fair," she told me. "It's still our fair. I just can't leave." Now that seems silly to most of us, but her family tradition has her latched to a parcel of land for seven straight days every year. And she loves every minute of it.

I also saw someone yesterday with a different family tradition. Actually, calling it a family tradition isn't exactly accurate. This boy, whom I will call James, never had a father and lost his mother at an early age. For most of his 16 years, James has been shuffled from temporary home to foster home to orphanage. His tradition is that there is no family, no one worth trusting. And sadly, James' tradition is that he can do as he wishes. If he does something wrong, the worst that will happen is a move to another foster home or shelter.

Back in March, James moved into another foster home. This one was working out well, and James told the couple that he wanted to stay with them. The next day he attacked his foster mother with a knife, stabbing her multiple times and even slashing the couple's 13-year-old daughter, who got away to call for help. The woman survived, and James is off to prison for 18 years.

As my wife and I talked about James, we wondered if James had been blessed with a good, stable family if he would have turned out the way he did. We'll never know, of course, but it sure seems like he would have had a better chance.

I cringe when I see parent of young kids out in public, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other, and obscenities written on their t-shirts. I see WAY too many of these, and I wonder what chance those kids have. Surely I'll see those kids in twenty years, talking and acting in the same fashion as their parents. Family tradition, right?

And then I thought about the one power that can break the tradition.

I was blessed incredibly with a great family while growing up. I was adopted as an infant, so I realize that my present life could be startlingly different than it is today. I accepted Christ early in life, so there was no huge turnaround story. It wasn't hard to accept Christ publically -- that was what was expected of me. Family tradition, if you will.

What was actually hard was doing more than walk the aisle to the altar. The hard part was putting feet to my faith and living out what I believe. That's still the hard part, you know?

But back to James... what was going to take him out of a childhood full of violence and crime? Sure the love of a mother and father can be big influences. But I know plenty of kids who have gone bad while growing up in a lovely home environment.

Let's face it. There is only one Way out. Whether He's pulling me away from daily temptations or whether he's pulling the violent kid toward a life of obedience to Christ, there is only one Way.

Family traditions aren't broken easily.