Monday, August 2, 2010

Travel Treats

"Life is like a box of donuts. You never know what you're going to get."

At least, not in my house. You may think you'll get the powdered sugar one with the chocolate cream filling. But there is no guarantee. Other sweet tooths prowl around my kitchen looking for just such a treat. Only the early bird gets the trans fat.

Perhaps I should explain.

In the last two weeks, I have traveled from southern Louisiana to western Michigan (and everywhere in between). My dutiful little Saturn (turning 11 years old this month!) carried me to a friend's home in DeRidder, LA for a few days of catching up and Cajun food. We talked church, writing, comedy and what makes a good etouffee. We toured the Tabasco factory, saw egrets on Avery Island and ate some spicy Cajun cuisine at a place called DI's in the middle of nowhere. After several days of swam-like humidity, I returned home to Carterville (and its swamp-like humidity).

This weekend, I traveled to Grand Rapids, MI to observe and explore Mars Hill Bible Church. For years, I have listened to their podcasts and followed their journey. So with a couple weeks left on my sabbatical, I decided to climb back into my spacious Saturn for 1,000 more miles of driving. It was a great couple of days (minus the driving time).

But through all these travels, I had been gone from home quite a bit. And my kids were noticing. Usually, when I travel somewhere for any length of time, I bring back a little something for their enjoyment. Not so these times.

But in Michigan, I had an epiphany. Dunkin Donuts! If you must know, they are my favorite. I gleefully clog my arteries for the likes of their fresh donuts. I know, I know, all you Krispie Kreme purists will argue with me night and day. But for me, nothing beats Dunkin.

So I ate a couple for breakfast and bought a dozen for home. I texted a picture of the box to Jody to heighten the anticipation. I put the box on my car's floorboard, protected it from direct sunlight, and kept the air conditioner blowing in that direction (you know, to keep them from melting and going stale). I smelled those luscious donuts for 8 hours from Michigan to Indiana through the whole length of Illinois. Finally, I presented them at home and promised them for breakfast the next day.

You'd think that given the extraordinary lengths I endured to bring them home, my precious boys would have saved my favorite one for me.

But not so. I saw powdered sugar trails all around the kitchen when I awoke and knew right away that I'd have to settle for blueberry. Correction, even the blueberry one was consumed. I ate granola cereal instead.

"Life is like a box of donuts. You never know what you're going to get." Come to think of it, I believe someone else uttered those words long before me. I bet he was smarter than I and kept his box real close.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Little Peace and Quiet

The storm clouds settled low over route 34 in the Shawnee National Forest. I was headed to a 2 day retreat of solitude and silence, nothing but me and God. But somewhere between the hustle and bustle of everyday life and the promise of some spiritual disciplines, I ran into some rather puzzling places.

Rudement, for one. Rudement, IL. Someone will have to explain to me the historical significance of that town name. It's not much to be sure. I would say barely large enough to merit a town sign. Yet, as I was driving through, another sign caught my attention: Rudement Church. Hmmm. Sweeping past the place at 47 miles per hour, I wondered how many other churches in sleepy southern Illinois might be marked by the community as being rude. It was something to consider in the days ahead.

Another town caught my attention. Herod, IL. Again, the town map was the size of a postage stamp. But I wondered how anyone could name a town after that "fox" of the gospel stories. There is no less irony for me that Herod is located in Pope County. It seems that ancient enemies (dictatorial government and sacrificial church) cannot rest in peace, even in southern Illinois.

All told, I enjoyed my time along the Ohio River. I could not have asked for a better place to practice solitude and silence. The only sounds I experienced were waves lapping the banks, hawks chatting along the bluffs, and deer snorting when I walked too closely to their part of the trail.

But I think, I think, even amidst the strange small towns and vocal animal population, that I heard the voice of God. And his voice was love. Gloria Deo!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Fourth

Had Jesus possessed fireworks, I think he would have used them as teaching tools.

On Sunday night, I sat with my 3 boys and my parents at the park in Robinson, IL. A lack luster all-star baseball game was finishing up (12-4 was the final). We sat on some hard, wooden bleachers. Then the lights went out.

What followed was 30 minutes of part light, part sound, part sparkle and part magic. Lit fuses began a journey that ended in reds and greens, blues and purples. Sonic booms brought "ooh's" and "ah's" from the crowd. I craned my neck to watch each and every one.

One toddler sitting below us on the bleachers began with scared sobs. Then she managed to dare watching over her dad's shoulder. By the end, she was watching with wonder and calling out the colors with all the energy of a life just begun (Gween! Wed! Pawple!).

The finale came, lighting up the sky and scaring birds in every direction. We got up, stretched our aching backsides and followed the crowds to our parked car. My boys hopped along my side, skipping and talking excitedly about their favorite one.

And as we walked, my mind turned to something Jesus once said. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." I think I see his point. Some things have to die for other things - far greater things - to live. A wheat kernel is fairly unimpressive. A wheat stalk swaying in a field of gold - wow! A tightly wrapped bundle of explosives with a fuse - yawn. A green and blue explosion that fades to buzzing "bees" swarming in the sky - I'll make an appointment to watch that every year.

Unless a firecracker is set aflame and burned, it remains only a single novelty. But if it dies, it produces more wow's than you can imagine.

Yeah, I think Jesus would have used fireworks for teaching tools. Don't you?

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Today, I awoke early to the persistent, beeping reminder that Jody's phone had text messages waiting. Three of them. Having gone on a walk, Jody wasn't around to respond. So, I lumbered out of bed, silenced the inconsiderate phone, and decided to study in the quietness before my kids arose.

For 3 hours, I grappled through Romans 7 and 8, reading commentaries, Greek phrases, and chapter summaries. I took some notes on my computer in between my newly awakened children asking for breakfast or telling a pressing story. I meditated on "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" while Spongebob blared in the background. As I thought about sin, both as an action as as a personal force in our broken world, Noah declared that the Cleveland Cavaliers might possibly hire Byron Scott as their coach - a move that may entice LeBron James to stay.

I decided to finish my morning musing with the 11th verse of chapter 8: "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." I stopped at that majestic verse because I found my mind wandering to a weird sound coming from our new refrigerator. If I can't stay focused on that verse, it's time to hang it up.

The dog barked, apparently at phantoms (or possibly the fridge). My email inbox pinged to alert me to a message from a friend wondering how I was doing. My stomach growled. I noticed that I was still wearing my pajamas well after 10 a.m.

I got cleaned up. I fed the kids pizza for lunch. I made a lunch date next week with a pastor friend to pick his brain about church leadership. I asked Noah to feed the dog. I cleaned up the kitchen and threw in a load of laundry.

Then I tried to persuade my boys to go watch Toy Story 3 during the afternoon. One flatly said that it would be over his dead body before he would see that kiddie movie. Apparently he felt himself too old and mature for such things. One other son said, "Nah, I'd rather play my video game this afternoon. Maybe some other time." I shrugged and gave up my plans. My final son (of course) was then disappointed because he really wanted to go and "didn't ever get to do anything because of his brothers." Where, I wondered, is that "life" Romans 8 kept talking about?

Tonight - supper, vacation bible school and a baseball game (the final one I hope). I have a Netflix disc to mail, a book I would like to pick up at Lifeway, and a poorly judged, home improvement purchase to return to Menards. I need to fold a bunch of laundry and mow the yard, but the weather outside is begging me to procrastinate all of that and just soak up the sun. Maybe I'll pull the plug on my "video-game-crazy-kids" and shove them outdoors for some basketball or bike riding. Maybe I'll take them for a walk.

Sounds like quite a day, doesn't it?

I can't help but think that maybe, if I open my eyes wide enough (even on this mundane and monotonous day called today), I will see afresh that our "spirit is alive" because Christ is in us.

I believe that. So, today, as long as it is today, I will keep watching and living.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Prayer and Fire

"Prayer is imagination on fire with God."

There, I said it. Publically. For days, this phrase has been rolling around my mind like a marble which had lost its way. Now, I have lodged it squarely into the world wide web.

Throughout my life, I've struggled with prayer. What does it do? How does it help? I've read the commands to pray. I've seen time and again how God responds to prayer. I've witnessed the miraculous and unexplainable occur after prayer. I've felt prayer mold me and calm me and instruct me. But still it feels like a discipline rather than a pleasure. How can communication with my Creator feel so forced sometimes?

"Prayer is imagination on fire with God."

I like the idea that my imagination is a part of prayer. Imagination flows freely, both when I'm conscious and when I am not. It has a "pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17)" feel to it. Imagination hopes and dreams and thus has a wishing or asking element. Of course, imagination can often wander into destructive and fleshly territory (success fantasies, money dreams, lusts and control hopes). But that is where the "fire" idea purges it all. Burning with God is prayer. Burning apart from God is lust.

"Prayer is imagination on fire with God."

Perhaps that phrase is itself an answer to my prayer.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Summer Diamond Story

Logan had a headache.

He's six years old and was the first of his brothers to get the dreaded summer strep throat. Fever, sore throat, aches, and of course, headache. He spent his last day of school at home, missing the antics and activities of "Play Day." Ugh.

A couple of days later, Logan had a baseball game. The headache remained, although the pink antibiotics had licked the rest of it. He wanted to play. Begged, in fact. So, the family packed up the minivan for a trip to the James Street park.

Before the game, I donned my bright orange, coaching t-shirt and tried to motivate little Logan. I said, "Do you feel well enough to play?" "Yep." "Can you hit the ball?" "Sure." I said, "Alright, tell you what, if you hit a home run tonight, I'll buy ice cream afterwards." "Deal," he said with all the focus of a major leaguer.

About the top of the third inning (50 minutes into the hour long game), Logan came up to bat. So far, he had swung through a bunch of pitches and had to rely on the tee for both at-bats. In other words, no home runs.

Before his third (and last) at-bat, I reminded him of our deal. He smiled. I could tell he was struggling with the headache. He stepped into the batter's box and swung with all his might... Strike 1. Next pitch, he smacked a line drive beyond the reach of the dirt-gathering second baseman.

And Logan ran.

He raced around first base as the ball rolled to the fence. The first base coach urged him on. Logan made the turn at second base without a second thought (as the right fielder threw the ball lazily towards second base).

Then it happened.

Now, I should let you know that I was coaching third base. It's my job to instruct the base runners on what to do. Most of the time, I have to tell them to STOP! Otherwise, they would just keep running until they got to the concession stand.

But not on this day. Logan rounded second and was racing to third, all the while screaming to me, "Send me home! Send me home!" How could a father refuse? I waved him home as the ball trickled back into the infield with little deference from the opposing team. He touched home plate in the midst of rousing applause and high-fiving teammates. But my favorite moment was "the look." He turned and pointed in my direction - a smile exploding in his eyes - and mouthed the words, "Ice Cream."

Dairy Queen cost me an arm and a leg that night (after all, all five of my family members, including myself, had to get some). But the bill didn't reach the reward of the moment.

Surely, if the Spirit of God can shape us in a worship meeting or a bible study, then he can do his work in the dust of a baseball field and a Dairy Queen drive-thru. Don't you think?

"Send me home! Send me home!"

Monday, June 7, 2010


I was reading from Romans 1 the other day, pouring over the words, meditating, studying, researching, memorizing, etc. I was blown away by the density of Paul's words. Every sentence - every word - was alive with fire. Electricity must have coursed through that man's veins.

I turned from the printed page to my computer notes to type something profound - a note that would unlock some hidden meaning in the text, an insight I could preach some day. I don't know. I wanted to type something to remember the experience of Scriptural (Spiritual) awe. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement... on the page of my Bible.

Now, call it excessive emotion, call it craziness, heck, call it sabbatical syndrome, but whatever you want to call it, I saw something on that biblical page move.

My head swiveled from the laptop to the literature. I anticipated the miraculous - the finger of the Spirit, a dancing tongue of flame, even a disembodied hand writing a message from God. But what I saw wasn't exactly angel's wings.

It was a spider.

Now is the time to insert some exaggerated language to describe the spider. You know, make it sound bigger than Godzilla. Now is the time to chronicle my heroic struggle to overcome the Giganto-spider. But alas, this blog is to be nonfiction.

The spider was small, black, and sneaking across the page of Romans 1.

I did what any courageous, creation-sensitive pastor would do in the throws of biblical illumination. I slammed my hand down on it. I slapped my hand down with enough force to crush an aluminum can. That spider never had a chance.

My hand rescinded. The spider curled into the fetal position. Then I did something that would please my wife to no end. I flicked that spider across the dining room toward the sliding glass door. There it lay. Post-mortem.

Needless to say, the mood in the room changed. I tried to resume my laptop note. Nothing came. I looked to my commentaries. They, who speak relentlessly with academic rigor, shut up. Finally, as a last ditch effort to re-enter the spiritual dream I had experienced pre-spider, I turned back to the Bible.

There, mirrored on the page, was the evidence of my crime - spider guts covering the page of Romans 1. You wouldn't believe me if I told you what word was the epicenter of spider goo. It was the word "dead."

Now, forevermore, my study Bible will hammer the point home all the harder, Jesus is the one, "who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead... (Romans 1:4)."

Just another day of Bible study...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A friend of mine told me recently that for a blog to be read, it had to contain certain elements. "It has to be short," he said. "250 words or less." OK, check. Most of my entries fall into that sphere. "You need to have fresh entries often - at least once a week." OK, check. I'm living up to that standard. "Also," he said, "the blog writing has to be provocative."


Reading over what I've written so far, I'd say I'm about as far from provocative as possible. More like vanilla. And not in the good vanilla-milkshake-from-Dairy-Queen sort of way, but more like the metaphor-of-blah-vanilla.

Well, let's see, provocative... I could declare that the St. Louis Cardinals are the best team in baseball. But then again, that's more territorial than provocative (Cubs fans unite!). I could share my biblical sympathies with traditional conservative no-no's like God's openness or evolutionary theories, but then again that seems more theological than provocative.

Provocative journalism seems to center on marital affairs and divorces and "coming out of the closet," but the only time I come out of the closet is after I've retreived a pair of jeans or a polo shirt. Not very provocative.

I could quote a Jerry Seinfeld saying I saw the other day. He said, "Seems to me the basic conflict between men and women, sexually, is that men are like firemen. To men, sex is an emergency, and no matter what we're doing we can be ready in two minutes. Women, on the other hand, are like fire. They're very exciting, but the conditions have to be exactly right for it to occur."

There, I said the "s" word. Surely that will ruffle some feathers. Then again, in our sex-saturated society, no one may even bat an eyelid.

It turns out I'm about as provocative as milk.

So now, let me close my staggeringly mollifying post - now over 250 words - so that you (dear reader) can pick up a National Enquirer and read something that stirs your blood. Perhaps tomorrow, I can stand in the long line of provocative preachers and say something as shocking as "Jesus is Lord." In the meantime, I'm going to pick on my kids.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

OK, so I messed up. Admitted. But it seemed harmless enough at first.

My garage doors were open. Some springtime birds were flying and flitting around. I was caught somewhere between mild amusement and complete oblivion at their presence and activity. And besides, they weren't ramming their heads into my sliding glass door. So what was the harm?

The harm was that they nested in the eaves of my garage - not one loving Purple Martin couple but two. Sigh.

One day, a passing thought occured to me (among kid's ballgames, meetings and worship services): Shoo them away. I neglected the thought. Another day, I heard the dreaded sounds of tiny chicks screeching for food. Sigh (loudly). Now, what to do? I couldn't bring myself to upset the nest(s) of little ones. Surely, a pastor with creational concern can't kill chicks, right? Right?

So, Spring has worn on with flocks of birds flying in and out of my garage. It seems the Purple Martins are inviting their friends over. Seriously, come on! Of course, my garage floor, cars, bikes, lawn mower, paint cans, garbages cans, and generally everything is covered in a layer of bird "evidence." I'm ready to turn against my creational concern.

Tonight, it seems the chicks have flown the coop. I don't hear their pitiful calls anymore. I'm considering shutting the garage doors. Do you think the parents will get the hint and find new lodging? Or will they begin attacking my sliding glass door?

If I just keep the doors shut long enough - make those outsider birds uncomfortable enough - then maybe they (and their droppings) will stay away for good. Then, my garage will be clean, quiet and only open for me and those I want in there. Sounds pleasant. Sounds good.

Then again, am I talking about my garage or the church?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I attended a pentecostal church on this Pentecost Sunday morning.

As always, it is a little different to step out of the safe confines of my churchgoing experience to slip into another environment. People were friendly enough. The music was loud and lively. There was a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit and a "Pentecost for me" and a "fresh filling."

My mind went to those who are new to the Christian faith. What must they think as they hear all of this language? Are they intrigued or insulted by the insider talk? Does it speak of a mysterious God to pursue or a magical deity to shun?

I was dismayed by the talk of the Holy Spirit as an "it." It seemed that he was mostly referred to by what he does - miracles, words of knowledge, rewarding those who give financially. I didn't hear any talk about relationship - drawing close to God, to Jesus. I left the service wishing to have more of the Spirit in my life and wondering what that even means.

Mostly what I experienced this morning was the unending struggle of the professionally religious - the reflex to critique instead of the impulse to connect.

If "calling for flame" means anything to me this summer, it surely means to engage my mind in foreign worship experiences (yes!), but it also means engaging my heart, soul and strength as well. May my Father, the Creator of Pentecost, move me from mere evaluation into deeper adoration.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Well, it's day 3 of my sabbatical journey and I've already succumbed. I've made a list. I know, I know. I shouldn't. I think it's against the point of a sabbatical. Of course, right at the top of my list - my first entry - was the line: "Do not make a list." I guess I won't be checking that one off anytime soon.

For most of my adult life I've made lists. Monday mornings wouldn't be complete without one. How else can you categorize the tasks to be done? I don't think I could function without one. They tell me what to do.

And maybe therein lies the problem. Do. For a personality type like mine, "doing" can become the "end-all-be-all" of existence. Life revolves around checking stuff off a list ("Git r done" as the southern Illinoisians say). Days are evaluated based on how much got checked off a list - great days have crossed out tasks but frustration sets in if lists go untouched.

Of course, that doesn't mean I don't value people and relationships. I put them on the list. Sigh.

Perhaps, today I'll put away the list. Nah, that's probably not enough. Today I'll burn the list. And maybe just maybe, when I call for the flame, I'll glimpse the God who loves me for who I am and not just what I do.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fire fell at his calling. Twelve sacred stones, a sliced and soggy bull carcass, and water running everywhere. I'm not sure any story could capture my attention more than that one. First Kings, chapter 18. Elijah propositions the prophets of Baal with a simple question: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him."

But the people said nothing.

The essence of my life is answering that question. Of course, I jump at the chance to shout, "The Lord is God!" As a pastor, I get that chance every day. But I have found that too often my actions and attitudes reveal a wavering heart. A financial pinch, a brewing conflict, uncertainty - they all give me pause to waver. And Baals in the form of money, power, comfort and pride all vie for my attention.

So for the coming summer days, I am taking a sabbatical from my daily routines of ministry. For several weeks, I too will say nothing - not because I doubt the sovereignty of God, but because I doubt my voice in proclaiming it. Like Elijah of old, I need a day to listen to the other prophets' voices, see the shallowness their fervor, and pray for God's response. My hope is that I will come to the point where I can tease and dismiss the voices in my life which say, "Shout louder, strain harder, cut deeper and then maybe your God will do what you want." Such voices have gained way too much influence in my life lately.

So, for the next few months, I will join this prayer: "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again."

Fire fell at his calling. May it fall afresh on me.