Let Me Help You…

“I can do it myself.”

These are words that are often spoken by young children as they begin to gain independence. As children start to figure things out on their own, they are offended when loved ones offer to help with basic tasks they have mastered.

However, these words were spoken several years ago by a man in his early 30’s. This man, well, it was me.

Before I get too far into this story, I need to make the disclaimer that I have never done well with medications. Anything stronger than a regular strength Tylenol will make me sick for days. The problem is, I didn’t really know that before the incident I’m about to share with you.

I’m one of those folks who waited until adulthood to have his wisdom teeth removed. When asked by the oral surgeon about my tolerance for pain, I told him, “Well, if you could just make me comfortable. You know, maybe fix me a cocktail that has one of those little umbrellas in it. Give me the feeling that I’ve been hanging out at the beach all day.”

As the effects of the “cocktail” kicked in, well, I don’t remember much after that. I do remember that just before the procedure started, I made some kind of wise crack about the dental school the surgeon attended (he was an I.U. guy…a friend was attending dental school at Ohio State at the time…so, I felt it was necessary to insert a slight jab).

Following the procedure, Emily took me home and, as far as I’m concerned, life was good. The truth is that I was out of it. And, life wasn’t so good for those around me. I picture myself as an ideal patient. Others might disagree.

At one point, I needed to visit the restroom. Emily, being the kind, caring, compassionate, and loving person she is, offered her assistance. She noticed that I was not of sound mind and felt like I could use some help.

I responded to her offer with a less-than kind, caring, compassionate and loving statement of, “I can do it myself.” So, against her better judgment, she let me have it my way.

The way Emily tells the story is that shortly after I made my way into the restroom, she heard a loud crash. She walked into the restroom to find yours truly passed out on the floor with one arm in the toilet! Yep, “I can do it myself!” Many will say that I got the reward I deserved!

Later that evening, Muncie experienced a small earthquake. Emily made the decision to sleep in our guest room (she said I was loud, had oral surgery breath, and was a bloody, drooling mess). Our guest room also doubled as a music room. So, when the earthquake hit, the drums and cymbals began to shake and make their presence known.

Emily came into the room to let me know there was an earthquake. Still dazed and confused from the “cocktail”, I tried to calm her down and informed Emily that it was just my mom coming over to help out! I said to check the door because I was certain it was my mom knocking. I believe it was 2am, not exactly a time my mother normally drops by.

So, I learned two important lessons that day…

  1. If someone you love and trust offers to help you, let them help you.
  2. As I result of my fall into the toilet, I can’t remember the second lesson. Oh, wait, guys, listen…it’s okay to sit down in the bathroom. In the words of Larry David, “It’s more comfortable. When you get up during the night you don’t have to turn the light on and wake up. And you get to read.”

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The Power of Music

On a recent walk through the neighborhood, “Mr. P.C.” from John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album hit my playlist. Immediately, I was ushered back to a very specific time and place. My mind was flooded with memories within the first 4 measures of this tune.

As I continued walking and reminiscing, I found myself reflecting on the power of music.

Many of us have experienced the power music has to transform our moods and to tap deep into our emotions. Whether it’s in our rooms, on a walk, at a concert or worship gathering, music has the power to reach into our soul.

I could go on and on about how music has played a powerful role in my life.

Music can bring joy. If I turn on a Joao Gilberto or Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa nova, I can’t help but smile and move to the music (I would call it dancing, but my youngest daughter would disagree).

Music can bring laughter. I have always loved the crafty, and often humorous, lyrics of the Beastie Boys. Growing up, I was a big fan of The Dead Milkmen and They Might Be Giants. Both of those acts intentionally write songs that bring about laughter.

At the same time, music can bring me to tears. I can’t listen to Tchaikovsky’s “None but the Lonely Heart” without shedding a few tears. The same is true when I listen to “Appalachian Spring: VII. doppio movimento” by Aaron Copland. I remember the time the chancel choir sang a song that had been used at my mother-in-law’s celebration of life…they had no way to know that…and I could not pull myself together and had to just “take a moment” before I could precede with the worship gathering.

Music also has the ability to inspire protest and stir up a bit of anger and rage. I think back to the first time I heard Rage Against the Machine. I was immediately inspired to figure out ways to overthrow the oppressive government. I remember listening to Public Enemy and how Chuck D’s lyrics helped open my eyes to institutional racism. I think of the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger that call us to action.

Music also has the power to heal and speak words of hope into our lives. I think of the song written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and made famous by Jackie De Shannon, “What the World Needs Now is Love”. It’s a timeless classic with a relevant message for all generations.

I also think of how music has the power to transport us back to very specific moments. I can hear certain songs and immediately be flooded with memories.

If I hear John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb”, I recall how that was the song playing as I walked into my first middle school dance.

Anytime I hear The Cure, I remember how I leaned heavily on the album “Disintegration” after experiencing my first heartbreak.

If I hear Minor Threat’s version of “Stepping Stone”, I think of high school swim meets. I used this song to help pace myself in races.

If I hear “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker, I am transported to Headliner’s in Muncie and can picture being gathered around a table with friends.

If I hear Pete Yorn and David Gray, I find myself thinking about driving along Highway 1 around the Santa Cruz, CA area.

When I hear the Buena Vista Social Club, I think about my first Valentine’s Day with Emily.

So, back to “Mr. P.C.”.

When I heard this song on my walk, I was taken back to Eastern Illinois University and the United States Percussion Camp…over 25 years ago. I was in an “advanced mallets” class, taught by Julie Spencer-Blume. She was teaching us about improvisation. We learned the melody, chord structure and scales utilized in the tune. We learned about taking cues from one another and the playful interaction that should be present when “trading 4’s”.

After class (it was our last class of the day), my friend Wisconsin Dave and I raced back to the dorm. We both started looking through our books of CD’s (this was long before the days of streaming services and mp3’s) to find a copy of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. Dave found his copy first. His CD’s were better organized than mine!

We grabbed my CD player and made our way back to the music building. Finding the door to the mallet room locked, we found a university employee and convinced him that Professor Johnny Lee Lane would approve of him letting us into the room to practice! We spent hours listening to the track and attempting to craft solos. We traded solos, critiqued one another, made suggestions and practiced late into the evening…all in an effort to be better prepared for our class the next day. And, it was awesome!

Today, I am thankful for the power of music!

Church Behaving Badly

For the most part, I have experienced tremendous blessing through the Church. The church has been a great source of life, love and encouragement. As a pastor, the Church has shaped me and helped form me into the person I am today.

However, there are times when the church has a tendency to behave badly. Most of the time, I think the misbehavior is unintentional. However, there are times in which churches are intentional and methodical in how they cause harm.

There are times when, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the church hurts those it is called to love and care for. There are times, when the people and institution that is supposed to be your biggest support is the biggest cause of pain.

And, I speak not only as one who has experienced church hurt, but as one who has caused harm and church hurt.

To be honest, I’ve never understood the competition that exists between churches. We are on the same team. We desire to point people to the life-transforming love, grace and mercy of Jesus. And, yet, there are times we actively work against one another.

We belittle one another’s methods.
We demean and discredit signs of life in other churches.
We gossip and spread rumors about the leadership of other ministries.
We ignore opportunities for collaboration.
Unfortunately, the list could go on and on.

To be honest, the competition doesn’t just exist between different congregations. Sometimes the biggest competition lies within the walls of individual congregations. Churches with multiple service times and worship styles have set the perfect stage for competition. “My service has more people than your service. My service has better music than your service. The pastor wears a robe during my service…that makes it more holy. The pastor wears jeans during my service…that makes it more authentic and relevant.”

There are times when we actively work against one another. We plan our big events at competing times, requiring people to decide which ministry they are going to support with their presence and gifts. We decide not to promote other ministries and events. And, we can say it’s unintentional. But, the reality is that it’s too often calculated, intentional and hurtful to those who have put their time, energy and effort into those ministry areas.

I know this because I’ve done it myself. I know this because I’ve experienced it myself.

Then, there are the obvious signs of church hurt – when big profile Christian leaders proclaim hurtful, harmful and often unbiblical “truths” that cause pain, division and harm not just to individuals put to entire people groups (immigrants, Democrats, Republicans, LGBTQ, pro-life, pro-choice).

The harm done in Jesus’ name is not reserved for one brand of theological or political persuasion. Progressives do plenty of harm. Conservatives do plenty of harm. Moderates do plenty of harm.

I’m reminded of Mark 9:38-41. “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

Rather than focusing on what divides…rather than focusing on our differences…maybe we should be more concerned with who we can be FOR one another.

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I Appreciate a Good Gimmick

I can often be overly critical of lame gimmick’s that offer the old “bait and switch” when it comes to modern evangelism.

I’ve seen a little bit of everything to encourage folks to “get back to church”. Giveaways that include everything from iPad’s to smart TV’s to new cars. We lure people in with the opportunity to “win big”, but send the majority home empty-handed. Well, not unless they have a life-transforming encounter with Jesus…Then we send them home with “Jesus in their heart” and their “names written in the Book of Life.”

Then, there are the church Facebook ads, postcards and billboards that make any particular congregation look hip…and then you get there and the piano is out of tune, they are using an overhead transparency projector, and they serve Folger’s during the coffee hour.

Or there are the ads that use stock photos, making the church look incredibly diverse and inclusive…then, upon arrival, you quickly recognize that the stock photo was a gross misrepresentation.

Here’s the deal, I know it is all well-intentioned. We greatly desire to get people connected with Jesus and the Church. We are often willing to follow Paul’s sense of mission and “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

I wonder if, in our attempts to “win people to Christ”, we inadvertently misrepresent ourselves. There’s always been a push to be honest, authentic, open and real. So, maybe we should run our ads and evangelism through the old “b.s.” meter? If it stinks, we should go in a different direction.

Of course, the very premise of that “get back to church” platform assumes that people were previously “in” church. With the growing number of “nones”, we can no longer assume that people have experienced “church”.

Now, I started this with saying that I appreciate a good gimmick. I really do. I have an appreciation for clever attempts to attract people to the Church.

Every year around Ash Wednesday, I want to participate in the “Get your ash in church” campaign. Get it…”get your ash in church”??? But, taking my context into consideration, I stop myself before it gets too far.

I’ve also appreciated the “Get your tail in church this Easter” campaign. It’s not offering a prize. It’s not offering some kind of cutting-edge church experience (let’s be honest for a minute, even the most hip and trendy churches still seem like lame attempts to copy the “non-church” trends of music/design/fashion. For example, can we convince worship leaders and pastors that they don’t need skinnier jeans, bigger hats, bigger glasses, and more hair product?)

Here’s the good news…In this “new normal”, it is easier than ever to “get your tail in church this Easter”. You don’t have to leave home. You can just log into Facebook. And, if the power goes out, you can sacrifice and use some of your cellular data to join the fun!

Anyway, here’s where I’ve found myself…just be true to yourself. Don’t try to keep up with the church down the road. Be who you are called to be in this time and place. And, if that means you are going to use catchy gimmicks and give away a new car, go for it!

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A Grocery Adventure

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. ~Philippians 2:3

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I found myself being mindful…not only of “social distancing”, but also of the general mood of the store.

Let’s be honest, things just feel different.

The grocery seems quiet…almost eerily quiet. Background noises are reduced to the sounds of carts and PA announcements. I’ve noticed the absence of typical store elevator music. I have noticed the absence of the typical “buzz” of families, customers and staff interacting.

People are definitely more focused. While we seem to be focused on our task at hand, it also appears that we are noticing one another more…mostly in order to stay out on one another’s path. But, at least we are taking notice of the presence of our neighbor.

On this trip, I was wearing my Death Wish Coffee Company bandana as a makeshift mask. I find that the skull and crossbones are intimidating and motivate others to keep their distance. If I had been thinking, I would have worn a Harley Davidson hat and jacket. With that, people would have thought I was some rough and tough biker dude. Those who know me, well…

What I noticed were people’s eyes. I thought it might be difficult to read the mood of the room while the majority of shoppers were covering their faces. However, our eyes can tell a story. While I could not tell if people were smiling or frowning, I could get a sense of joy or burden, calm or chaos, peace or anxiety, fear or strength just by observing my neighbors eyes. To be honest, I’ve not been that observant in the past.

As I made my way to the checkout line, the power went out. My first thought was, “Now what?” Shortly after the initial darkness, the backup generator kicked in and the even number lanes opened to serve customers.

The lane I had been standing in (9) closed and the cashier asked everyone to move over to lane 8. As we were making our way over, a woman who had not been in the previous line, rushed to the front.

The young cashier (I know she was young because she had to have a coworker scan the “communion elements” for the adult members of our family!), said to the woman, “Excuse me ma’am, these folks were ahead of you.”

The woman basically ignored her as the cashier spoke to the gentleman who had been at the front of the line, “Sir, would you like to make your way to the front.” The man calmly said, “That’s okay. She can go first. She’s obviously in a hurry.”

The woman offered no apology, no signs of remorse, no attempt to play it off as not paying attention, no offer to move to her appropriate place in line…Just a self-righteous, “get out of my way, I’m more important than you” attitude.

I found myself being proud of the gentleman in front of me. He could have made a scene. However, he made the decision to extend a bit of grace.

We’re all in this together. Maybe this time serves as an invitation to slow down and recognize what truly matters? Maybe this is a time to take the words of Philippians 2 seriously – to consider others as better than ourselves?

I recognize that maybe the woman was in a hurry because she just wanted to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. Maybe her fear, rather than selfishness, is what really drove her to disregard those around her.

I hope that as we continue in this “new normal”, we all will be more like the gentleman who extended a bit of grace and less like the self-involved woman who was only looking out for number one. We’re in this together…and we are better together.

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