Jesus is Not a Rockstar


This is a blog about what Jesus is not. . .not a blog about what other preachers may or may not be (Just a brief word to those of you expecting something else. . .)

Have you ever met someone famous? Or remotely famous?

Did it go the way you imagined it?

Pretending this famous person is your favorite musician/band, I imagine it went something like this:
You bought tickets to see them, spending more than you usually do on entertainment.
Surprisingly, you saw the musician in public, completely available for fans to meet, maybe after the concert for autographs or at a restaurant before or after the show.
You gather the nerve to engage them, and you approach, words forming in your worshipful mind, as your eyes register what they really look like up close. . .
Wow they look way rougher than I thought, OK, don't mess this up, don't say anything stupid, wow, wow, I can't believe I'm actually getting to do this. . .

And out from the mental portal known as the mouth comes some combo of the following:

"Hey, I'm a big fan. I love your music."
"You're so awesome. I've followed you forever."
"I have everything you've ever done, even the hard to find live stuff. Don't worry it's all been legal."
"I still have a pick you threw into the crowd when I was in 7th grade."
"Can we get a picture with you?"
"Will you sign_____________?"
"That was a great show."
"Thanks for making great music." 
"I'm from Rhode Island too!"
"I love you I love you I love you so much!!"

After your initial contact, they say something gracious and practiced (unless you interrupt them as they bring a bite of broccoli to their mouth, in which case it goes to Awkwardsville real quick.) They give some combo of these kind of statements:

"Hey thanks. We really appreciate the support."
"Awesome. Who should I sign this to?"
"Of course. YOU are awesome."
"We have the best fans. It's why we do what we do."
"Oh yeah, Cleveland always rocks."
"Thanks for the support. We have a new record coming out soon."
"Excellent. Are you on our email list?"
"Thanks so much for coming out."
"Rhode Island. Sweet. Where at?"
"Well, I love you too."

If you're lucky and you set them up well in conversation, or wore a homemade T-shirt with flashing glowsticks, you might get a few more seconds of airtime and interaction, but inevitably, The Pause happens. . .the moment when you both know the brief collision of your worlds is over. And for the fan, it was too brief, but for them it was one more random connection in a bottomless pool of faceless interactions, an affirming moment objectively assimilated into their matrix of what it means to be adored.

Nothing particularly awesome or witty or insightful happened. No phone numbers or home addresses were exchanged. Your short dialogue didn't convert them into one of your texting buddies. Your families still never share picnics on Sunday afternoons, lying on blankets in the sun discussing the beauties of the universe. . .

But you did get a story, a moment when you met someone Famous, an anecdote you can pull out the next time someone says "Oh I love_________!"
"I got to meet them. The lead singer signed my larynx! And he was eating broccoli! With a fork!"

When I listen to the way many people talk about Jesus, particularly younger folks, they talk about Jesus like He's a Rockstar.

They describe some moment they had with Jesus (but usually they say God and not Jesus) at some event, where for one brief moment they got to see Him, and IT WAS SO AWESOME. And when God's name comes up, they pull out a story from some event and speak of the moment they got to encounter the famous God.

Fans that follow bands will debate the awesomeness of certain shows and concerts, compare band members and set lists, and dissect the legitimacy of alternate versions of tunes for hours and hours in conversations and on message boards.
"Oh, ____________'s vocals rocked so much harder at that festival in '09!"
"You had to be there. Sweet venue, great sound. Best ever."
"Since they got ____________ as a drummer, it's just not the same."

The way some of us talk about God and His awesomeness is similar to these discussions--God tied to an event and a brief encounter you had with Him, an encounter ending when the venue closes, and all you have is a story to blurt out when His name comes up.

I know there is a popular book out now called Not a Fan that stresses the idea of us being followers of Christ rather than fans. I don't think I'm re-tooting the author's horn here, nor going down the path he does. I think believers are both followers and friends of Christ. My bigger point is Jesus is not some Rockstar we only get to worship from afar, being satisfied with intermittent encounters with Him at special moments.

I don't think He died and rose again so we could have awkward moments in the autograph line with Him, not knowing what to say, but being completely satisfied we have a story for our friends which is verifiable on Facebook by a grainy pic of our arms around Him. 
"Hey thanks Jesus, you rock!"
He is the opposite of the Rockstar: you are not some faceless entity He interacts with as long as you affirm His gifts, moving you along quickly so He can meet all His fans. He is Immanuel, God with us, but we transform Him into God on stage. He doesn't exist to entertain you by giving you your latest sensational buzz--He exists in a goodness He freely shares in Christ, a goodness not contained in isolated moments on mountaintops but a Presence with you in all of Creation.

I think He died and rose again so we can know Him. Not just know about Him and not just adore Him from a distance. Not just meet Him but walk with Him. Redemption and Reconciliation mean we can discuss the beauties of the universe with Him lying on blankets but we also can walk through valleys with Him, intimate and personal, hopeful and trusting. We don't have personal trust with Rockstars, we only have a separated appreciation.

This is good news, this is great news, this is Gospel. This is what we live, sharing the eternal shine of the King who leads us from the inside-out.

If Jesus set up a table in your church to sign autographs, what would you do?
What would you say?
You know what I would do?

Nothing.

I already know Him.

And He knows me. I say that gratefully and as an invitation for you to experience the same.
He'd probably laugh if I asked Him to sign my bible--oh wait, I would probably get in line to do that--just so I could hear the King of the Universe laughing. . .



Matt O.

Right arm! Left arm!

"Father Abraham had many sons! Many sons had Father Abraham!
I am one of them and so are you! So let's just Praise the Lord!
Right arm! Left Arm! Right. . ."

I hear the children yell-singing along with me as we act out the motions to the simple melody. The intricacies of Galatians and Romans, the covenants of circumcision and grace, and the fulfillment of both law and promise the furthest things from our minds. We are hyper and alive in Children's Church today, delirious with an environment that allows us to shout the joy of being God's Chosen while marching in place like tiny, silly soldiers.

"I AM ONE OF THEM AND SO ARE YOU! SO LET'S JUST PRAISE THE LORD!"

The truth that I can be a child of the blessing, one of the counted stars of the uncountable galaxy, a cherished grain of sand in the endless beaches of God's grace, comforts me often when I doubt my identity and position in Christ and His world. I probably should do a crazy little dance with my friends more often as we project our voices triumphantly, spinning around in amazement.

Yet sometimes I feel like old Father Abraham himself. . .
I pack up and leave the confines of the familiar, walking in lands not my home. . .
I cozy up to my bride participating in the sacred, intimate act, struggling to trust against common wisdom that the Lord's Word remains solid. . .
I saddle up the donkey headed to a mountain where my greatest fears wait for me. . .

What faith! How awesome! The Lord provides! So let's just praise the Lord!

But I also watch my servant work and see not just a female but a contingency plan, a way for me to bring about the Lord's wishes in my own way, in my own time. . .

And I am not just Abraham's son, I am the son of Sarah, laughing when I get a glimpse of what the Lord's plans might be, sprinkling in some (un)holy sarcasm for my own enjoyment, and rolling my eyes when my husband of promise stares at me with the eyes of the young. . .

I am the twin of Isaac as well, tramping along dutifully, doing the math in my head, asking Father where the sacrifice might be, except I ask quite a few times more than young Ike, and wonder what bonds I would let my dad tie me with, and whether I would lie still on the altar as his sun-spotted hands raised the killing blade. . .

So let's just praise the Lord!

Just praise the Lord--as I walk in my schizophrenic faith, my multiple personalities of Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah keeping the silent donkey company as we walk, waves of trust crashing into walls of doubt, steps of obedience tripping as they tango with sexier options.

Did Abraham have white knuckles as he gripped the rope guiding his beast of burden and trust?
Did Sarah allow hope to peak through the clouds of cynicism when Abraham placed his head on her chest and murmured the creed of promise given decades before?
Did Isaac feel pride in his dad's unwavering gaze towards the mountain even as he naively followed with arms full of wood meant to be burned under his own body?

When we are asked to fully trust God, we are still fully human no matter how much we shout the praises of the Lord. He asks us to follow Him, not to cease being human, and most of the time the following slogs through swamps where both faith and doubt reside. Maybe fixing our eyes on Christ in those moments has nothing to do with sight but with the ability to remember Gethsemane, whispering not-my-will-but-yours prayers in the midst of cups full of anguish.

Or maybe we need to stop praying and thinking so much, put down our Bibles, power down the blogs and just start swinging right and left arms, and start stomping right and left feet, as we spin around screaming our defiant trust that we really are children of the Good Father. . .

Matt O.

Nominated the Conclusion


Our series on Nominated began with my startling discovery I was the Vacation Bible School Director at my church, journeyed through the dangers of the Warm Body Mentality in church programming, and now comes to some ideas and principles to counteract the WBM while also being catalysts for consistent spiritual formation in your church Body. . .

I will start with some disclaimers:
  1. There are no perfect churches, no perfect programs, no perfect methods for recruiting/training/keeping volunteers, and certainly no perfect discipleship methods.
  2. There are no one-size-fits-all, can't-miss techniques that can be used in every church, every culture.
  3. I am not perfect in my principles or methods either. Nor have I always followed my own advice, particularly with volunteers. Most of my principles come from my mistakes. And none of these principles are "re-inventing the wheel".
  4. God's grace sustains us all and His Spirit moves in many ways--even sometimes through Warm Bodies just going through the motions.

Off to the practicals now. . .

On Recruiting Volunteers
When you ask someone to be a volunteer, give them enough time to process the requirements of the position and to pray about it. Starting with a sense of urgency like "I need to know by tomorrow if you're willing to be our Children's Director for the next 80 years because I know you love kids because you have like six of them," is not a positive first step. I recommend a face-to-face conversation first with a follow-up email with all the details of the position including:
  • How long the commitment is for and when will they have an opportunity to step down or renew the commitment. Or if/how they can downgrade or upgrade responsibilities.
  • What kind of accountability they will have, who they are responsible to report to, and what the evaluation process will be.
  • What the time commitments are, including not just the start/end times of services/events, but what time they will be expected to be there both before and after the service/event.
  • All the rest of the duties spelled out whatever they may be (teaching, running sound, getting food ready, etc.) including any intangible expectations like "building relationships with teenagers", which may mean telling them specifically things such as "Do not sit on the back row with all the other adults but sit with actual students in the rows."
  • Give them a gracious way to say "NO" You're looking for volunteers who want to be there.
Also in your recruitment conversation and in your email, encourage them again to pray about the position, but also tell them the three things you look for in a volunteer. . .
  • Called: Some sense of peace, calling, or passion for this position but preferably all three. You're not looking for someone to do it out of guilt, because they really like you, or any form of the "I guess I need to get plugged in somewhere" mentality.
  • Committed: You consider this position a commitment and a covenant. If they say they're going to do it, then they need to do it. Whether it's tougher than they thought or whether or not they feel encouraged enough, etc. A commitment to the very end: if you sign up to lead a small group, then lead the group (according to the specific duties spelled out for them) no matter how small it gets. . .if it started with 14 and dwindles down to 4, it's just a smaller group. Same expectations apply.
  • Capable: Affirm why you asked them to serve in the first place: they have gifts and skill-sets, or sources of joy that you (and probably others) noticed. You wouldn't have asked if you didn't think they were capable.
After all that and your mighty Avengers are assembled, your duties then are the following (and here's where I have often failed):
  1. Pray for your volunteers
  2. Check in with them to see how they and the job description are lining up.
  3. ENCOURAGE them. Don't just use them as slave labor for the success of your ministry. Care about their spiritual development as well: suggest books to them, ask about their relationship with Christ, etc.
  4. Gently correct any behavior that is not in keeping with your expectations or that are in clear opposition to the agreed upon job description. Do not just swallow it and unload on them at the end of the year and do not just confront it in public right when you see it: set up a face-to-face meeting.
  5. Keep your end of the deal. Make sure you are providing them the tools they need to thrive: giving them curriculum or small group questions in a timely manner, making purchases ahead of time and not at the last minute, don't change their job description by adding on duties all the time, give accountability and evaluations as promised, etc.
And lastly, some miscellaneous thoughts about Warm Body Mentality and programming:
  1. What if you just had staff get to know their people and then discovered what Callings, Commitment-Levels, and Capabilities already existed in your people and then built your programming around them? A "Developing Unique Programs According to Your Unique People" vs. "Plugging People into Your Already Designed Programs"
  2. What about knowing a program will be healthy for your church but instead of starting it right away you take a year to train your volunteer leaders on what you want the program to look like? A good example is small group ministry: Instead of getting a dozen leaders to immediately start their own small groups after a one hour crash course on small groups, what about making a small group with those 12 leaders and you lead the group the way you want them to lead their groups? It is a long-view version of programming but I think it is a powerful, mature, and healthy way to really start something well.
  3. What about having a good program going but letting it "make due" a little bit with not enough volunteers rather than letting it suffer with too many poor or unqualified volunteers? Which is worse: Not having a youth praise band right now OR having a band but none of them really care about holiness off the stage?
  4. What if instead of looking at every program as a permanent part of the structure of your church life you thought of programs as seasons? And seasons change. Except in this case you ask yourself: In this season of our church (or particular part of our church) is this program still the best way to be utilizing our volunteers for the spiritual formation of God's Kingdom people? If it's not, change the programming.
Hope these help some of you church staff/laborers out there. But if you ever find yourself directing VBS against your will, just remember the big 3:  Goldfish crackers, Finger Jello, and Popsicle Sticks.

Much love.
Matt O.




Nominated Part Tres

We still have two questions to answer about the Warm Body Mentality that exists in how churches often recruit volunteers for programming. . .
2. What if we didn't have those programs and we had visitors come in and they left because we didn't meet their needs? 3. Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental?

2. This one is not very hard for me to answer: I think we make too many decisions out of "fearful hypotheticals." We create a scenario in our minds that we are scared might happen and then react as if that situation has already occurred or is a worst case scenario. There might be this visiting family who has this one 6th grade boy who doesn't play well with students outside his peer group and needs a 6th/7th grade Sunday School class but we don't have one so the family might leave. . .so let's get that Sunday School class started. This may sound exaggerated to many of you--but I've heard very similar detailed reasons given like this in many a meeting about not only volunteers, but about new ideas, and even about some theological points. (If "A" is true we're worried that "B", "C", "D" will happen so "A" obviously can't be true or we refuse to acknowlege it to be true because of fear of B, C, D.)

I think making fear-based decisions is rarely a healthy thing for a people led by the Spirit.

I also think that maybe we elevate the concept of "meeting people's needs" above the concept of "called and capable" people leading a particular program. If my car needs to be fixed and I try to get a well-intentioned and willing accountant to fix it, the attempt may be made but the car will probably remain unfixed. It is hard to meet a person's spiritual needs with someone unequipped to do so. When forming our programming to meet people's needs we should ask ourselves "What needs are we able to actually meet?" as well as "Are these people's needs or their preferences/desires?"

I do not expect volunteer leaders to be perfect at their jobs, (there are no perfect mechanics that I know of), but we should expect them to be competent and have some sense of calling and passion for their position. Lastly, as for the fear of people's needs not being met because of a lack of programming and them leaving: It's OK. God is a pretty big God with a ton of local churches out there. If you're not ready for that family yet programming-wise it is OK. Children should only be given matches when they're ready to use them responsibly not when they're scared they'll never feel the warmth of a fire. Bad things happen when you give matches to kids who aren't ready to use them. . .which brings us to our final WBM question to answer. . .

3. Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental?
You can probably tell from my previous answer where this one is going. Should an accountant work on my car? Should a toddler play with matches? In most scenarios, of course not, unless said accountant is a proverbial jack-of-all-trades and the young tot is a pyro-savant. And why is the answer no? Because of the harm that comes from folks messing with stuff they don't know about.

When you have someone who is a nice person and a willing person but doesn't know the Lord real well or the Word real well, you do not have a Sunday School teacher.

When you have someone who wants to direct a committee or serve on a board but doesn't have a real prayer life or hasn't demonstrated wisdom in their own personal lives, you do not have a leader.

When you have someone who has kids and shows up regularly on Wednesdays, but doesn't know how to hold a conversation with a teenager or share their personal testimony in a meaningful way, you do not have a youth chaperone.

I said above that making fear-based decisions is rarely a healthy thing for people led by the Spirit--I said rarely because I think there are two kinds of fear we need to have more often:
A "fear of the Lord" where we respect His desire for His children to bear His image and a "fear for the spiritual health of our sheep" that supersedes our desire to have any ole pasture (program/leader) for our sheep to graze in.

I believe much of the lack of spiritual vitality in our congregations and much of the exodus of our churched youth from further church life and involvement can be traced to putting warm bodies in positions of spiritual influence who had little to no spiritual lives themselves. They went from being nice unsaved people to plugged-in church people rather quickly--without much training or observation of the process of spiritual formation in them by their spiritual overseers.


If we want the steak and potatoes of the faith to be eaten by all but place babyfood and milkbottle Christians in a majority of our influential positions, then we can expect our spiritual Outback to go out of business. When people (young people especially) don't see the fruit or the fire in their leaders, we cannot expect their faith, fruit, or fire to manifest magically on its own. In fact, when people (including myself) see the lowest common denominator being accepted it is very easy and natural to set your own standards to the same level.

I know this is not the case in all churches so do not be offended by the observations--but I know these descriptions are very accurate for many congregations.

In the final post, I will offer some positive and viable alternatives to the WBM. . .

Matt O.

Nominated Part Dos

We introduced the Warm Body Mentality (WBM) in the last post: the idea that churches decide what programming and activities they need (or have always had) and then find the warm bodies necessary to keep those programs going. WBM gathers volunteers not because of their spiritual fruit or proven giftedness, but by a willingness to say yes.

I ended the first post with two symptoms of the WBM which I believe are harming our churches: the lack of spiritual vitality and the departure of many young people from the church.

Isn't it good that we have volunteers running those vital programs? What if we didn't have those programs and we had visitors come in and they left because we didn't meet their needs? Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental?

I will answer those three questions asked by my hypothetical deacon of defensiveness:

1. Isn't it good that we have volunteers running those vital programs?

I want to respond with Jesus' words in Matthew 19 to the rich young ruler: "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Ha. Seriously, what is "good" when we're talking about church programming?
Does good mean simply functioning? Does good mean it is still operating the way it was 20 years ago? Does good mean it has a lot of participation?

I believe if we're going to use the adjective good when describing church programming it should mean the activity or program has demonstrated proven long-term results in helping folks become better followers of Jesus Christ. Some would call that discipleship or spiritual formation. It is the reason we should have a program in our church--not to just make folks happy, keep folks coming, maintain a legacy of existence, or to make places for people to get plugged in--but to create environments where healthy spiritual growth takes place.

And how do we know if a program is beneficial to the spiritual formation of its participants?
Great question and a tough one to answer, one I would answer with more questions:
Are relationships being formed that exist outside the programmed event?
Do people get there early and want to stay late?
Do people participate in the process or just spectate?
Are you seeing the fruit of the Spirit in conversations?
Can you observe increased humility, forgiveness, grace, and hope? Increased trust and vulnerability?
Do people talk specifically about Christ and knowing Him or vaguely about God and pleasing Him?
Is there a sense of commitment and faithfulness, of increased interest?
Do people come prepared, bringing their bibles or curriculum or having read the required reading?
Is it something people want to invite others to rather then being told to invite others to?

Those diagnostic questions are helpful but not perfect. They are also tough to apply to our children's programming and much of our student activities. It has been proven over and over that often our kids and teens come and get excited about our programming not because of Jesus but because they are kids and teens--and we give them a space to be that.

We beam with pride when our kids sing the songs in front of the congregation, or answer the Sunday School questions correctly about who lost their power when his hair got cut, or when our youth group is busting at the seams of their boisterously painted youth room. And all of those can be legitimate sources of pride and joy. . .believe me, no one loves a kids choir special on a Sunday morning more than this guy. . .but. . .

I don't just want our kids to answer questions about Jesus or do the nice things because they're scared of Jesus not letting them go to heaven--I want them to share their cookies because they love Jesus. I want them to say "I'm sorry" not because we make them say it but because they've seen us parents practice grace, humility and forgiveness. This isn't a blog about child psychology and age of accountability or a plea for a particular type of curriculum--but a blog about our markers, our diagnostics, for what is good often having little to do with loving Jesus and neighbor and a lot to do with the appearance of a successfully functioning religious institution.

Most teenagers want a place to be themselves, see their friends, and get a little loud and crazy every once in a while. Snacks and music would be great in that place as well. Our churches provide that exact desired environment. Is a youth program good just because it has teenagers in it? Is a zoo good just because it has animals in it? Is a movie good just because it has some cool explosions and attractive actors? Decades of church statistics show us that successful youth programming (having lots of teens participating) often does not equate down the road to young adults who love Jesus and are committed to a local church. Yet, if the youth room is full and the students are having a great time and not getting caught doing the big bad things (Sex, Drugs, Alcohol) then it is a successful and vital program. Do not hear cynicism in that statement--hear instead the observational accuracy of over 20 years of student ministry experience and verified expectations of countless conversations with pastors, youth pastors, and parents.

Back to the original question, "Isn't it good that we have volunteers running these vital programs?"
I would say not necessarily--a program that is just being run for reasons stemming from the desire to see "apparent success of the religious institution" is rarely a healthy fulfilling of the Great Commission to make disciples who obey Christ and His teachings with the whole of their lives.

We only have space to answer the first question today, I will address the other 2 questions: What if we didn't have those programs and we had visitors come in and they left because we didn't meet their needs? Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental?in the coming posts as well as offer some ways to combat WBM while presenting some alternative perspectives on church programming.

Matt O.


Nominated

It was a dark and rainy Wednesday night at the church.

OK, it wasn't.

It was the normal bland and chaotic night of mid-week programming at the church. Adults shuffling through the required routines, children screaming delight as they run aimlessly, sometimes screaming just to hear it echo off steel rafters, a lone staff person weaving through it all, juggling expectations and volunteers in a barely watchable circus act.

The solo minister is approached by a Deacon. . .

"Hey there, Matt."
"Oh hey, Donnie."
"I was wanting to talk to you about the youth this summer."
"Ok, it's February though."
"I know. We were just talking about Vacation Bible School this summer."
"Ok."
"We were thinking the teens might not need a class this summer, you know, they're getting kind of old for it--"
"I couldn't agree more, Donnie."
"Well, you think the older teens could help out then with the younger VBS classes, you know, like be assistants and help the older teachers?"
"I was thinking the same thing! I think the teens are ready for something like that."
"So you don't have a problem making that happen?"
"Not at all Donnie, I think it's a great idea."

The following Sunday morning was dark and rainy.

Ok, it wasn't.

It was the normal rhythm of a practiced people, an intermittent parade of sincerity, intentions, plaid shirts and patterned blouses. The organ drew them into their reverent stupor, calloused hands ceasing  greetings, hard candy being reached for, and restless children already seeking the confines of imagination only found on the church carpet below the pews.

This Sunday, however, was Nominating Sunday, a particularly Baptist custom, run by the Nominating Committee--which of course, makes absolute practical Baptist sense. Nominating Sunday consisted of the Nominating Committee announcing who had accepted the nominations for the various volunteer positions in the church for the coming year: everything from the Ushers to the Sunday School Teachers, the Senior Saints director to the Holiday Decorating Committee. Unveiled before the church in awkward glorious display came the vast network of ministry labor leadership, a creatively stretched minority of the flock, a select few spirits whose sacrificial demeanor made them perennial favorites of servitude--or targets, depending on your perspective.

Deacon Donnie, chairman of the Nominating Committee, stood shifting from foot to foot, expelling name after monotonous name, waving the fuzzy-headed microphone like a lollipop long bereft of flavor or joy.

I sat in my pew, ready to poke out my ear drums with a carefully pointed offering envelope, but opted instead to grab the hymnal in order to find weird words in random verses of forgotten songs. I never did find "mine Ebenezer", for Deacon Donnie's voice pierced my trance as I heard the following words--

"And we're real excited this year about our Vacation Bible School, our VBS director this year is Matt Orth."

The youth pastor sat stunned for a moment, the hymnal falling from my grasp in slow motion, not unlike the scene in an action movie when the hero's partner (or girlfriend, etc.) is shot by the bad guy and the camera zooms in on their hand releasing the gun/necklace/flower, etc.

Donnie and I made eye contact across the golden-harvest-colored pews, his look letting me know what our conversation had been about and surely I knew that, right?

I laughed, bending over to gather to my wits, and stood dramatically, bursting forth from the rows to stand in majesty with the rest of the assembled ministers, a mismatched crew of excitement and duping. I thought it appropriate that I stand next to the Person Who Counts The Money This Year and the Family Life Center Scheduler, thinking in my heart that perhaps their conversations were something like mine (Do you like money? Good. Have you ever used a calendar? Excellent.) and maybe we were soul mates in the unpredictable world of volunteerism.

The Nominated turned into the Dedicated as Deacon Donnie blessed us with a prayer chock full of KJV pronouns for the "upbuilding of the Lord's earthly Kingdom" during the next twelve months.

I directed VBS that year and I don't remember much about it. I'd guess finger jello, catchy four note songs, and church adults poorly dressed as Bible characters were involved somehow. Oh yeah, and popsicle sticks. I bet there were a bajillion popsicle sticks.

 Over the years, the Nominating Sunday became symbolic to me of what eventually I named the "Warm Body Mentality" in many congregations. The Warm Body Mentality (WBM) is where a church decides what needs to happen program-wise in their church Body life and then they just find any ole Warm Bodies to make it happen. Calling, Gifting, Genuine Needs and intangibles like Faithfulness, Fruit of the Spirit, and Relevance don't enter into the equation of acquisition. What matters is a YES and a Warm Body making whatever the desired event or programming is actually happen.

I firmly believe it is one of the reasons we often sense a lack of vitality in our fellowship and concurrently a reason why so many young people often leave the flock never to return. . .

In the next post we'll cover some sources and dangers of the WBM, as well as some counter-cultural alternatives to combat it. . .



Loony Tunes Kitchen


There's my sweet little Addi at 17 months. Her older sister introduced her to ipods and ear-buds already, under strict sibling supervision of course, and Addi likes to dance standing next to big sis.

What a sweetie. But Addi the Sweet earned herself another nickname this year, a name given to her from frequent moments she creates in our home such as this:
KID CHAOS!

Addi does not like things in baskets, things in drawers, things in stacks or things in rows. She does not like them here, she does not like them there, she does not like them anywhere.

Kid Chaos does not like it when the room grows too quiet or the adults get too serious. If she senses a state of concentration, a semblance of order, settling into her habitat--she springs into motion, banging, clanging, pulling, pushing. . .or running to that magnetic refrigerator Leap Frog toy of madness:

The goal of the toy is to help babies make matches, learn their animals, pick up the tunes of some familiar kids songs and manipulate chunky puzzle pieces with their chubby little knuckle-less hands. The name of the toy is not Farmer Tad. That's the name we gave it because most times when you push the main button he yells at a decibel level usually reserved for jet planes: "HI! I'M FARMER TAD!" in an electronic voice supposedly simulating the dialect known as "redneck baby animal."

Push the button again and the toy begins to play such classics as The Farmer in the Dell and She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain, again at teenage garage band levels, but now in a synthesized banjo sound which could feature in the computer-animated version of the movie Deliverance.

Addi, aka Kid Chaos, tends to park herself in front of Farmer Tad right when older sister Micah is trying to do her math or when I'm cooking in the evening. . .

When I cook, I like to put on some music and make the whole process an enjoyable, and I don't mind saying, worshipful experience. It's the end of the day, the family is home, God is gracious and food shared around the table is one of life's greatest blessings. . .

I usually don't put on overtly Christian music (sorry Churchfolk) but something singer-songwriter oriented or a band that plays their own instruments and writes their own songs, something with no auto-tune or no sounds coming from a setting on a fancy keyboard.

I had some Avett Brothers on the other night and I was particularly excited about the evening's meal though now I forget what it was. . .and the music was playing, I was chopping and dicing. . .the night was good and full of potential. . .

Then sweet little Addi, the Chaos Spinner, ran to Farmer Tad and camped there, pushing the button repeatedly, sending out one after the other of demonic banjo kid's classics.

Have you ever tried to concentrate when there are two songs playing in the room at the same time? I'm lucky I didn't lose a finger. It's not that there weren't distinct melodies being played, it was that there were two melodies being played, chosen by two very different DJs with opposing agendas.

The dissonance in my kitchen from the competing songs is something I believe many of us live with relationally every day. 

It may be with our spouses, with other family members, with co-workers, or with God.

We have a song, a melody we want to play--that we demand to be heard! Our instrument will trumpet out its tune and it will be up to everyone else to get in line and play our song! I picture us, and myself in my pride, living our lives as one-person bands, strapped all over with many instruments, playing a solo of our own choosing (not unlike our friend Bert) and forcing everyone else to stand in the shadows with their little triangles, permitting them to strike the one note on the triangle whenever we deem best. . .

When good singers sing together, or good instrumentalists play together, they don’t all sing the same notes, but they sing the right notes: it’s what we call harmony.

One of the ways I like to view God is as The Great Conductor, conducting a Symphony of Redemption in the world. . .His wand of Patience and Sovereignty wooing all of our melodies to submit to being part of the music, showing us how we're all really called to be harmonies of the whole rather than solo melodies sending more chaos into the world. 

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Romans 12:16

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers and sisters, be compassionate and humble. 1 Peter 3:8


The relational dissonance with God or with others often comes from a lack of submission of our "voices" and "instruments" to the Great Conductor. The attitude that others are "lower than us" or their melodies are not as important is not the way of humility and compassion. . .and not the way of those excited to play in the Grand Symphony of Redemption.


As we've said before here on the blog: We must love people for who they are and not for who we want them to be. You have to appreciate others' melodies and allow them to be that, trusting God with the rest. Don’t put expectations on them to be something they are not, do not demand a flute to sound like the saxophone you may be. (This paragraph is crucial for us married folks.)

If we keep our eyes on the Conductor, the notes we sound out won't be the same notes as everyone else, but they will be the right notes. He can masterfully weave our melodies into a myriad  of wonderful harmonies. I like the sound of that much better than the mind-numbing chaos of a loony tunes kitchen full of competing songs.

Matt O

Doggie Dichotomies Part 5

The war between the familiar and the unfamiliar is not new, and it will not be eliminated with some good intentions. In fact, it will never be eliminated; we will always have it with us as long as we have people with different experiences and patterns living in close proximity. . .

The problem for us church folk is we are finding easier and more self-indulgent ways to separate ourselves from each other. We are segregating into our factions of familiarity, personalizing our congregational life by preferences, and becoming our own islands of spiritual practice not just determined by theological differences but by who shares the same security blankets.

The young pups like Caleb denounce the old paths and old yards, mocking outwardly or inwardly the stubborn Dobermans who refuse to change. . .There is so much more out there they bark and yelp. . .and off they go exploring. Yet even the puppies can't stay in a pack--one thinks it's all about chasing cars, another is totally a digging-under-fences canine, and then there's the fetch crowd and the bury stuff in a hole puppies. I don't even have time to talk about the cat-haters and the just lay there and lick yourself types. . .

I agree with you Calebs. . .there is so much more out there. But it will turn to ashes in your mouth, a mist in the morning gone in a flash, empty calories that you thought made you full but left you hungry just a few hours later if you do not first learn the lessons of Buddy the Doberman. . .

You need to learn what faithfulness is. . .and it's not getting the same specialized latte at the same Starbucks every morning. It's those little old ladies who taught Sunday School at the church you now call dead or crappy or other more demeaning adjectives. The little old ladies that if you quizzed them on their theology (the theology you gained mostly from the one or two speakers you love at conferences and those blogs you frequent) you would find them lacking. And their teaching style? Gag me with boredom.  But those little old ladies prayed for every little Charlie and Nancy they ever taught, every week, probably every day. They showed up early for their class, knowing the curriculum, providing snacks, and greeting each student by name with a hug and a smile. And they did it for forty years. . .and no one sent them one email ever on a Saturday to make sure they'd be there in the morning. . .

You need to know that not all fences are an affront to your freedom and individuality. Many fences are what allow you to truly grow up into the awesome dog you can be. When you randomly dig because all fences are dumb, and when you roam off all the paths because you think they're dry things leading to pointlessness- you miss so much beauty, including the untold blessings of having a farmer's patience and waiting for the right season for the harvest to come in . . .

You need to know how to truly listen to someone's story without coming up with a punchline or preparing your own one-up story you can come back with. You need to know how to drink a cup of tea and hold a conversation without any cellular device being in eyesight. You need to look at old family photos, learning some names that aren't your Facebook friends and see what depths have been explored before you. . .

You need to know how to deal with death and suffering with dignity and grace--right now all you know are over-the-top weddings and whirlwinds of baby photos. The Dobermans know how to put together a meal for an after-the-funeral gathering, everyone pitching in to give the raw grieving shock a place to manifest and a home for the process of comforting to begin in--and many times they don't know personally the one who died. . .

For once, smell the old folks couch and clothes in their actual living room instead of just buying their stuff from a thrift store and calling it "so cool". . .

Hold some hands that actually fought in wars rather than just typing out a rant about peace in 140 characters or less. . .

Look into eyes who have seen their neighborhoods and homes torn down and their traditions discarded. . .yet have seen their own grandkids born and bless them all the same. . .

Listen to a voice that knows how to gently give wisdom in a world of yelling and posturing. . .

Taste the poundcake that wasn't made from a box or picked up at the last second from the sale rack at the local grocery store. . .savor that cake made by trembling hands holding a yellowed index card with a cherished recipe written in cursive, a card memorized long ago but simply held for the nostalgia of legacy and connection. Put your fork into a slice of something baked an hour before the sun even thought of coming up. . .


The buzz will wear off young puppies, and mortgages and disappointments and not-quite-dream-jobs will weave themselves seamlessly into the fabric of your lives. Pounds will be gained and hairs will recede and the tides of life will come faster and leave quicker than you'd like. . .and the lessons you need for those realities can't be taught by fellow puppies with tongues lolling and saliva dripping. . .

But most of all, the grand lesson of love is this. . .
We only truly love when we love the "other". We must learn to embrace folks who are different, for it is in the differences where we truly learn to give of ourselves. It is the primary lesson in marriage, and the way God expressed His divine Good Samaritan love for us. . .and if I were a more astute theologian with more space I could make a case that the Trinity itself is the perfect example of love and unity amongst diversity. . .

It is where the good stuff is.

The familiar and unfamiliar will always be in tension and always be with us. . .
We must realize the familiar and unfamiliar need each other. . .
And the church community is where we decide to learn from each other in self-giving love or splinter into isolated factions of self-absorption. . .

Matt O.

Doggie Dichotomies Part 4

Imagine you are a well-known and respected teacher in all of Christianity. . .

Actually, if you're being honest and being pressed on the issue, you're the most respected leader in all of Christianity. You studied at the best institutions under the best professors, reading everything of quality both on and off your required lists, with publishers bidding on the rights to every paper you turned in. . .
Your mind is uncannily quick to grasp truths and stack them in a logical, practical and accessible order. You are known for your ability to communicate complex concepts and the ways of the Lord; your zeal for Him is unmatched. Even your peers who look at you with barely restrained jealousy admit to your stellar spiritual integrity.

It makes perfect sense then when a threat appears to God, some upstart cult making trouble, that you are chosen to address the threat, to take care of it with passion, precision, and devotion. You know the value of God's ways, they are tried and true and you have walked, taught, and displayed them your whole life. This little insurrection is not from God--from everything you've heard they are rejecting the old paths, making a mockery of tradition, and elevating their leader as equal to the Almighty. . .

You check with the local and state authorities to see what kind of jurisdiction you have in stamping out the rebellion and find they've given you a lot of leeway, probably due to your reputation. There will be no joy if you have to use force, but you will use it if you must--the honor of the Creator is at stake. Checking to make sure you have the proper papers, you look at your assembled team, a response force of responsible God-fearing folks, and you head out for the place where the wayward folks have gathered. . .

It feels great to be out on the open road, doing the Lord's work. In fact, it feels incredible. You worked so hard for so long, never deviating from your goals, always being faithful to the bone with the gifts the Lord had given you. This task wouldn't have been given to a person with less zeal or less knowledge. . .this truth comforts you with each step of your mission. There is no satisfaction like knowing you are completely doing God's will.

As you approach your destination, your mind wanders to the various scenarios you may face, you begin to break them down one by one----

Your thoughts are interrupted by a blinding light--is it lightning? No, you saw no clouds--and this light is remaining, and growing brighter--it really is blinding! You cannot see! When did you fall to your hands and knees? You don't remember--but now you grope around in a light-caused darkness, overwhelmed, spiked with fear, trembling and sweaty--and from the light comes a supernaturally rich voice calling your name and it asks you a question:

"Why do you persecute me?"

You are doing the Lord's work, yet here is one like the Lord calling to you--it has been a long time since you have been this uncertain, this out of sorts. It's not just your reeling senses--it's the fact that here is something from the heavenly realms, your area of expertise, and you have no idea what is happening. . .so you ask the only question springing into your mind, the only question making sense to you in your senselessness. . .

"Who are you, Lord?"


This is a retelling of Saul on the road to Damascus from Acts 9, the beginning of where Saul becomes Paul. It is one of my favorite stories in all of the Scriptures, a story of perspective, arrogance, and humility.

We've been looking at the tension between the Familiar and the Unfamiliar in the church world (what I often call Churchianity) and our centering story has been that of Buddy the rigid Doberman and Caleb the exuberant puppy.

Saul thought he had everything figured out, serving the Lord fervently out on the road on a crucial mission. I don't think it can be overstated how committed to the Lord Saul was and how reputable amongst the leaders of Israel. It would seem unfathomable that he would miss God's ways.

Yet he did.

When the Lord showed up in the person of Jesus Saul did not recognize Him. The most religious person in all the land did not recognize the very God he represented. To be fair, the incarnated Word was not a form Saul would have expected but on the other hand. . .
He was doing the Lord's work but still asked "Who are you, Lord?"

What a sobering thought! What a humility-inducing concept if we'll let it sink in!
Is it still possible to be so consumed with Jesus and His work that we could not identify Him if He literally (or figuratively for that matter) showed up among us?

In the midst of our services, our songs, our programs, our small groups, our outreach events, our traditions, our liturgies, even our quiet times, if He really showed up. . .would we say "YES Lord!" or would we say "Who are you, Lord?"

And here is the scariest thought with this story, the one that should humble us all:
If we're the ones thinking something like "Not us, we'd know it was Him, we're doing it right" then we are the very ones who are in danger of not recognizing Him!

Don't believe me? Just ask Saul.


O Lord, in the midst of our busyness for you, our passion for your Name, our songs and our prayers for Your Glory---may we truly know Jesus and His voice. Humble us please. Amen.
 
Matt O.

Doggie Dichotomies Part 3



Jesus creates quite a stir in His public ministry. . .the "commoners", the masses begin to flock to Him and not just because of the miracles and healings (though that is a huge part of it). . .

They come because He teaches in a way that has authority. . .and the actual things being said. . .well, they aren't exactly what you heard in your Jewish Sunday School. . .

He attracts the attention of the religious leaders who come to question His authority, identity and the content of His teachings. In one story, he's questioned by some of the crowd who basically say:
"Hey, all good religious folk spend a ton of time keeping the ceremonial laws, especially regular fasting. Your disciples don't even fast. . .at all! What's up with that?!"

Jesus gives a brief response about celebrating at a wedding when the groom is with them--you can fast later! And then He drops one of His weirder chunks of wisdom:
"No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.' " (Luke 5:36-39)

Jesus was telling them He was bringing new wine (and was Himself going to be poured out like new wine, yes?) but He needed vessels who would receive this new wine. As wine ferments it produces gasses which puts tremendous pressure on whatever container they are in. . .new animal bladder skins could expand with the chemical reaction, giving the new wine room to "grow".

Wineskins which had already went through this process had already been stretched to their limit. . .if you tried to reuse the skin and place new wine in it, the expansion this time would lead to an explosion instead--and a loss of both skin and wine.

 I will try to refrain from preaching here too much (It's a blog, not a pulpit, Matt!) but one more little scriptural concept before our Buddy-Caleb application (that makes no sense unless you read parts 1 and 2). . .

Jesus also came as the Cornerstone. The centering stone and key-stone to the whole temple. . .which as He and the New Testament writers make clear was not the literal temple any longer but a living building made of people who centered and built their lives on and in Christ. The people were to become the temple, the place where God dwells, through the Cross and Tomb work of Christ and the presence of the Spirit. . .
Jesus the new (yet old) Cornerstone was a threat to the old temple and everything it represented. . .even though He is was the very fulfillment of all it represented! And here's the thing: Jesus is still the Cornerstone and is always the cornerstone and He is always building His temple in each community, culture, and era. And therefore, He is always a threat to the "old temple".

Buddy! You path-keeping Doberman! You have been faithful, you have run your course and you held the line, blazed the trails, and defended them. Wine was poured into you and you expanded with it and now, nearing the end, you do not have the capacity for new wine. . .this is OK, expected, and known by God. However, what is not OK is to then try to derail the generations behind you from expanding with their own new wine.Yes, your paths are worn and true and they have been beautiful things for you. . .BUT. . .there will always be new puppies coming along. . .

What is your duty with the new pups?


If Jesus is the wine metaphorically that we're talking about, a relationship with Him and following His paths of love, mercy, justice, humility and faithfulness then that is what you want to pass on. More than traditions, methodologies, events, preferences. . .pass on to the next generation the marks of Christ. It takes a wise and gracious ear to listen past the differences and hear the voice of the Cornerstone in the hyper puppies all around you. . .

Woe to you if you protect the wineskins and prevent others from enjoying their wine. . .

But, but, but. . .their wine isn't like our wine!! Jesus knew this complaint as well, remember? ". . .no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'"

Each generation has an obligation to listen for the Cornerstone's voice and to build their lives (individually and corporately) in obedience and trust with that voice. . .

"But, but, but. . .these puppies are reckless and have no respect, and just don't get it!" Oh, don't worry, I will address them soon enough. . .but I still have another blog for you in Part 4.

But just remember this you old wise dogs: what happens to puppies?
Lord willing, they grow up to be wise old dogs too, don't they?

So this blog really is for them too. . .they just don't know it yet. . .



Doggie Dichotomies Part 2

(. . .continued from Part 1 here: http://rustytugboat.blogspot.com/2013/01/ocd-dogs-paradox-of-legacy.html)

I can imagine Caleb and Buddy having a dialogue through the wooden fence that separated them: Buddy with nose in the air distractedly commenting to the frisky ball of energy the follies of living like a puppy and Caleb with paws and head bouncing around like he's watching a three-sided tennis match excitedly firing questions at Buddy one after the other about digging, freedom, and cars.

I mentioned in Part 1 how in our church life and practice there's a tendency to create dichotomies or Either-Or scenarios, it's either this way or it's that way.. . .some of the more familiar ones are Traditional vs. Non-Traditional, Hymns vs. Choruses, Our Denomination vs. Their Denomination, Young vs. Old, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, Our Baptism vs. Your Baptism, Our Holy Spirit vs. Your Holy Spirit, Our Version of the Bible vs. Your version of the Bible, and so on and so forth (I could go on a looooooong time here. . .)

But today I want to write about Buddy and Caleb and their respective styles of experiencing the canine life and in doing so, examine a tension I see in churches everywhere I go, to varying degrees, that I believe springs from the Either-Or mentality and can be seen running as a common thread in the dichotomies listed above. . .

Familiar vs. Unfamiliar

I could've expressed it in other terms perhaps but I think the words "familiar" and "unfamiliar" are closest to the mark. . .

Buddy learned one way of being a dog. He had his familiar paths and his familiar habits. Life was about order and staying true to his paths and mission of defending the world from the evils of squirrels. To him, he discovered the only way to be a dog and he would not deter from it. . .I mean, why would you when you had found the Essence of Dogness?

Caleb, conversely, felt that Dogness meant experiencing everything you could see or smell at 100 miles per hour. Dirt? Dig in it. Fence? Dig under it. Human? Jump on it. Smells interesting? Put your nose all up in it. Road? Run into it! Cat? Chase it! Neighbor's garden? Pee on it!

Caleb is the puppy who was going to get stung all over by bees or scratched on the snout by a cat or even tragically, the one hit by a car (thankfully he never did). Chances were high he was going to force us to have to apologize for his antics (we did.) He had no filter and no wisdom. . .nothing was truly familiar to him yet so it was all a big adventure. . .and he was opening himself up to great harm.

Buddy on the other hand was pretty secure from such dangers due to his forging and sticking to his paths-- his wonderful worn, familiar paths. He knew his trees, his boundaries, his squirrels.

Do one of these dogs truly have the right way to be?
Should we emulate Buddy or Caleb as we live as Christians in this fallen world?

Is the familiar right? Not necessarily.
Is the unfamiliar right? Not necessarily.


Is the familiar wrong? Not necessarily.
Is the unfamiliar wrong? Not necessarily.

That is what we'll be picking through during the rest of this series of posts. . .but I will tip part of my hand a bit. . .

To all you Buddy type church people: We need you. We need your wisdom and warnings; we need to appreciate your boundaries and see the amazing foliage on your trees. Calebs, many of us do come to harm because we have no caution and no discernment. Also, these Buddies have found great joy in chasing squirrels and because we are one family, we need to share that joy with them and cherish it though it may not be as personally meaningful to us--yet we will find a new, deep, and rich joy if we learn to understand why the Buddies love their familiar paths and squirrels so much. . .

But also to you Buddy folks. . .
There is more to being a dog than just staying on the same eighty yards of dirt-worn paths and ceaselessly chasing the same squirrels. There are great dangers beyond those familiar fences and comforting roads you've carved--but there great wonders and unfamiliar blessings too. We will tease all of this out more in coming days, but I leave you Buddies with a heartfelt warning, found in one of my favorite stories:

In the winter of his ninth year, the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright was walking across a snow covered field with his reserved, no-nonsense uncle. As they reached the far end of the field, his uncle stopped him. He pointed to his own tracks in the snow, straight and true as an arrow, and then to young Frank’s own tracks, which crisscrossed and meandered all over the field. “Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle stated with a scowl. “And see how my own tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that.”
Years later, the famous architect relayed how that single experience had so affected his outlook on life. “I determined right then,” he said, “not to miss most things in life…as my uncle had.”


Matt O.






Doggie Dichotomies Part 1

Shannon and I's first "home" together was a small loft apartment in a renovated attic of an old home on a downtown street in Toccoa, GA. It was maybe 400 square feet total and had a steep set of stairs that went two stories straight-up. Real estate agents would have called our loft "cozy with lots of character". . .

We only lived there two months but it was the source of many of our early animal anecdotes (which will be told in full in the forthcoming marriage memoirs entitled "There's a Kangaroo in the Kitchen: What Happens When an Animal-Liker Marries an Animal-Lover" Be looking for this book in early 2015.) The loft was also home to my first dog, Caleb.

My family was not an animal family. . .we only had experience flushing goldfish and the one harrowing account with Snowball the Demon Bunny (see also: Kangaroo, 2015). But my wife is Crocodile Hunter, Jack Hannah, Beastmaster, Horsewhisperer, and Jane Goodall combined. . .so we adopted a stray black border collie puppy with blue eyes and one white sock who we named Caleb.

He was a smart puppy but still a puppy. We taught him some cool tricks like speak and how to hold a biscuit on his nose and then catch it. . .but again, he was still a puppy. He would burrow under the wooden fence and run amok. He would dig up the post holding his leash line and run amok. We left him alone one time in the loft and he chewed amok. Wild and unbridled, Caleb was a free puppy.

There was another dog in my life those first two months as well, a dog that wasn't like Caleb at all. The neighboring yard to ours was home to a Doberman Pincer named Buddy. Now, I had never been a "dog" guy my whole life and I especially wasn't a "Doberman-Pit Bull-German Shepherd-Rottweiler" kind of guy. I wanted nothing to do with Buddy.

I could, however, observe Buddy from a safe distance high up in my loft. He was the stereotypical lean Doberman, a coiled spring of energy and muscle, with ears and head held perfectly at attention. But Buddy also had OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or at least that's what I diagnosed him with as an Amateur Animal Psychologist. From our 3rd story vantage point I could see all of the neighbor's yard and in the midst of the green of the lawn there were numerous trails of brown where the grass had been worn away by his ceaseless pacing.

Buddy had an obsession and it was squirrels (Yes, not unlike our friend from the movie UP, though Buddy predates Dug by over a decade). There were massive oaks in his yard that were home to a monkey-like menagerie of squirrels who Buddy would endlessly track. He would trot back and forth on his worn circuit, head scanning the canopy, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fuzzy-tailed vermin that he may lecture them with his stentorian bark. . .

He never left the paths. Ever. His food and water bowl were placed on the paths. He dropped his little brown surprises right off the path. He had worn a path right by the fence so he could at least jog by when we came home to see if we were trouble (or harboring any squirrels?). We never got more than a cursory glance before his nose was pointed again to the skies. . .

One of the things I'm struck by more and more as I continue to minister in churches is there is an obsession with dichotomies, or systems that set up two things against each other. Or in another way: the Either-Or mentality. It's either this way or that way! There can be no Both-And--it has to be Either-Or! The mentality lends itself to a combative environment, where each side fears they are in error or danger if they allow any of the "other" to creep into their thinking or their practice. . .

These false dichotomies pop up in a multitude of settings in our churches and create fear, division and bickering  . . .but one in particular I want to explore in the next blog is the battle set up between the Buddy Way, stick to your paths and keep your eyes on what really matters (squirrels) and the Caleb way, there are no boundaries, do as you wish and live free.

2 dogs. 2 very different approaches to life. Buddy and Caleb could've learned a thing or two from one another and perhaps found a healthier level of existence for each of them. . .

. . .to be continued.


Holiday Values Part 6

Is your tree droopy?

What's that? You already took down your tree and all the trimmings? Impressive. You probably bake every morning too, don't you?

Our tree who stood at attention presiding over the festivities, guarding presents and filling the air with a soft pine scent is now drooping with a holiday hangover. If we don't take it down soon on our own, I believe it will start shedding ornaments on to the floor in protest and turn itself into the first ever Weeping Pine tree. . .

Yes, friends, the Holidays are over. . .and my infant daughter made a powerful point about it this past week. . .

Baby Addi is only 16 months old but she is going full-force into that exploratory stage of knowing what she wants, wanting to touch and hold everything, experimenting with her first words, and generally being a curious little monkey (a monkey that sometimes seems to have drank a gallon of Red Bull).

She has really embraced books and us reading them to her. . .or more often: her sitting on our laps and flipping pages as we try to read them to her.

Good night moo-
Good nigh--
Good--
G--
OK, I'll just hold you as you turn the pages.

There was one book this Christmas she really fell in love with: the one that told the Christmas Story. . .except she wasn't interested in the story very much. She was just interested in flipping to the huge centerfold picture of Baby Jesus in the manger. She LOVED that picture. It was all she cared about in the book.

She would lug the book around the house held open to that page with her two pudgy hands, showing Baby Jesus to family members, plopping it up on our ottoman to look at it again, or holding Baby Jesus up to her face and giving him kisses. Yes, it was every bit as adorable as you're picturing.

Matt, I see your point! From the lips of babes we again learn about God! It's all about Baby Jesus and giving Him kisses, nothing else really matters. . .

True, a pretty good lesson. . .but that's not where this story ends. . .

Baby Addi was walking down the hall smooching away on Baby Jesus when my wife told her it was time to change her diaper. Addi doesn't mind getting her diaper changed unless there's something else she wants to do. . .and I guess kissing Baby Jesus was it, because she got mad.

And in her anger she threw Baby Jesus (and the Angels, the Shepherds, the donkey, the camel, and at least 2 of the wise individuals) down the hall in protest and began to scream and cry.

From the lips of babes indeed. . .

The holidays are over. . .and for a few weeks each year (maybe days or hours for you) we all get to kiss Baby Jesus a bit. . .we get to crack open the book of our daily lives right to the really good part and just linger there, soaking it all in, amazed at the goodness of God and life.

But trees come down and lights are put away. . .stockings aren't hung with care but rather boxed with nostalgic regret. . .scales are stepped on to and work schedules are resumed. . .neglected chores return in force and classes are back with a vengeance.

Waves of "diaper changes" come our way and we like infant Addi holding our precious book go from celebratory joy and devotion to distraught anger that our reverie has been interrupted. . .and Baby Jesus goes skidding down the hallway in protest.

I want to live a life where I can kiss Baby Jesus when I don't get my way. . .especially when I don't get my way. I want to remember that Immanuel may get a spotlight on the calendar each year but the true light and true message of God With Us can manifest just as wonderfully each day of the 365. I want to live the reality more consistently that the things I think so often are "in the way" are actually "the way".

If you haven't packed your Nativity scene(s) away yet, might I suggest keeping little Baby Jesus out this year? Or maybe printing off a copy of the Baby Jesus page in a favorite Christmas Story book? Then put Baby Jesus somewhere He can be seen every day. . .and maybe pray a prayer like this:
Father God,
May I see the wondrous beauty and humble grace of Baby Jesus today in my life. May I find Him especially in the moments when I'm most tempted to throw a tantrum because I did not get my way.
Amen.

Peace on earth to you my friends.

Matt O.

P.S. If the only Nativity scene you have is a big light up plastic one, you have 3 options: Find a Nativity book as suggested and copy a page, find the last remaining discount sale in your town on Christmas items and purchase a more manageable set, or bring the lit-up Baby Jesus into your home and give Him a permanent place. Why not? However, if you choose Option #3, might I suggest additionally bringing in the coolest looking Wise Man and give him a spot in your home for the year. Then when faced with family drama or decisions you could ask him questions at supper or use him as the bad guy when disciplining your children. . ."Well, I was going to let you off the hook for it, but the Wise Man says it would be best for the development of your character to take out the trash the next 6 months. Sorry, son, it's hard to argue with wisdom."

P.P.S  Ok, maybe even funnier would be to bring Mary in the house and plug her in for the year. Then you could ask her "Mary, did you know?" questions all year.
"Mary did you know that I got a C on my Algebra test today?"
"Mary did you know I was thinking about shaving my goatee?"
"Mary did you know that I worked all day on this pot roast and no one said anything encouraging about it?"

P.P.P.S. If any you bring the light-up plastic characters into your home for daily interaction, please send me a pic and any memorable quotes or anecdotes that occur. Thank you very much.


 

Holiday Values Part 5

"Well, brother Matt, you sure have put a wrinkle in my stocking with all these Christmas posts-- extolling the Grinch and leaving poor plastic Nativity camels to fend for themselves and the like-- but you've been a little evasive on what you really think about the whole season. . ."

True enough, I've held back some cards for here on Christmas eve when visions of sugar plums are dancing through your head. . .

Wait. What's a sugar plum and when's the last time anyone's had one?

I have visions of many delicious holiday foods and on occasion have made them get down a bit in my head, but sugar plums have never made the soul train of my mind's appetite. . .

It's funny how many things surrounding Christmas time are slightly odd. . .

We cut down trees and put them in our homes and put lights on them. Or we get a plastic tree out of our garage and assemble it. . .

We hang over-sized socks from our mantels. And use the myth of an obese man in pimp clothes invading our homes as a deterrent to naughty behavior. . .

And how about those weird Christmas lyrics?

When's the last time you roasted chestnuts? Or brought corn over to someone's house "for popping"?
Have you ever staged a protest at a holiday party. . .that you weren't going to leave until you got some figgy pudding? And everyone pretends their Snowman is Frosty. . .I don't know who this upstart Parson Brown is. . .

I'd love to deck your hall but I'm all out of holly. I dropped it and ran when I say saw eight maids a milkin' and ten lords a leapin'. It was a bit disconcerting.

Many of our traditions and songs come from a different era with different cultural icons attached to the Christmas holiday. . .(back to this in a moment)

Much of the talk I hear during this season is about making sure we remember the true meaning of Christmas. . .and by the way it is said, it indicates that anything that isn't about baby Jesus in a manger is not the true meaning of Christmas. . .the "everything else" of Christmas is "in the way".

What if the other stuff doesn't have to be "in the way"? What if the figgy pudding, wrapping paper, and awkwardly placed mistletoe can be a part of the "true meaning" of Christmas?

Some words from the esteemed Englishman Clive Staples Lewis:
There is a stage in a child's life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began 'Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.' This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.

Lewis makes the case we can find the spiritual in the festal, if we put the spiritual first. . .but if we do not put it first: everything takes on a withering (and I would say cynical and hopeless) life. . .

When we live under the gracious and loving rule of Jesus as Lord, we are living IN the Kingdom of God. . .and as we do that, we can, if we allow ourselves to respond this way, find the beauty and goodness in things and persons all around us.

We can delight in well-wrapped gifts and perfectly baked snickerdoodles and the squealing laughter of children when they unwrap the gift you said was too expensive or not worth it. . .

When we live in response to the Spirit's rule in our lives we begin to get our Garden of Eden eyes back. . .and as we do, we can see the wonderful and worshipful all around us in this Creation in which we have been placed. . .

So back to our earlier thoughts on Christmas traditions: What do they mean to you?

Are gifts acts of love? Or signs that we all have bowed down to the capitalist greed machine?

But, but, Matt did you know one time a tree symbolized this and that?

Does it now? My tree reminds me of all that is good in this season and all the nostalgic delight of what I experienced as a child.

People used to say "God bless you!" after you sneezed because they thought a demon had been expelled from the body! But it's not what it means now right?

Left-handed people were considered Devil's spawn at one point. . .but not so now.

We change meanings all the time by our motives and by the values we personally attach to things. And Christ the infant King is The Meaning Changer and the Value Bringer, The Gift Giver and the Grand Celebrator.

I don't even know what figgy pudding is but I have my own "figgy puddings" in which I can delight, and be like the small boy shaking those chocolate eggs. . .because I follow Christ and His ways. . .

Christians, we are the Feast-ers! The Extravagant lovers! The ones who can always find Jubilee in defiance of the darkness. The ones who can find Christ in the chocolate. Delight in the meaning of Christmas among you, because Immanuel has come. . .and His coming that first Christmas signaled the inauguration of a Kingdom that will culminate in an eternal Wedding feast!

So drink up the egg nog to the glory of God! Wear that tacky sweater for the Kingdom! Carve up the roast beast! And sing whatever songs bring you joy. . .even if their original meanings escape you! In doing so, you echo the true meaning of Christmas and are the harbingers of the Kingdom to come.

And if the esteemed Englishman CS Lewis is not your cup of earl grey tea, or my blog today did not make you don your gay apparel. . . perhaps the esteemed Englishman Mr. Bean will grant you some Christmas insight. . .

 



Grace and Peace to you.

Matt O.

 

Holiday Values Part 4

The Parable of the Missing Butter

I had been working on my chocolate chip cookie recipe through many batches and manifestations and finally felt I had arrived at the perfect cookie, the right ingredients in proper amounts, an oven heated to an exact temperature, and a timed amount of baking on a certain pan of specific thickness.

I had been baking all morning--for company was coming in the evening, the kind of company who knows their cookies. . .so I double checked each step, meticulously hovering over ever dollop of dough placed and every spatula swipe of cooled but still warm confections.

I was removing the final pan from the oven when my wife burst into the kitchen--she was agitated with some news of great import, I could tell, yet when she saw me amongst my sea of perfect cookies, she paused---

"What is it?" said I.

"Oh dearest," said she, "The cookies! Have you tried them?"

"I was waiting on you my darling!" said I, "You ask as if something is amiss!"

"It is! THEY have struck again, my charming chef! THEY have passed a law that no baked cookies may have butter in them!"

"Nooooo! How could THEY!?"

We both dashed to the counter of cooling cookies and each grabbed a scrumptious disc of culinary perfection, placed them in our mouths, and. . .and. . .

NO BUTTER!!! NOOOOOooooooo!!

How could THEY?? I remember clearly placing the sticks of softened butter into the bowl, it should be impossible for them to remove the butter once it's in the dough. . .how could THEY do that??

The answer is. . .THEY can't. If the butter is really in the cookie dough, then there is no way THEY can take the butter out of the batch.

"THEY" can't take the "Christ" out of Christmas either. . .anymore than "THEY" can take the butter out of cookie dough made in your kitchen. . .or take "prayer" out of schools.

WHAT??

Yep. If the prayer is really in your kids, then prayer will be in their schools. If you put the butter in, it'll be there no matter what. . .

But I have a little secret for you: I do know who can take "Christ" out of Christmas. . .

THE DEVIL!!!!!!!

Ha, nope.

You.

That's right. . .you can take the Christ out of Christmas.

When we complain and whine through the season. . .
When we attack "THEM" for doing exactly what someone would do who doesn't know Christ. . .
When we are selfish, greedy, materialistic, impatient, unforgiving (with our relatives?), uncaring, argumentative, and smugly arrogant.

We can take the Christ out of Christmas.

Not THEM, not Hollywood, not Wall Street, not Liberal Media, and not even Wal-Mart. . .
We are the ones who can take the butter out of the cookies, because we're the ones in the kitchen.

So Matt, you're not bothered about the phrase Happy Holidays or Nativity Scenes disappearing?

Nope. Not one bit.

If the Nativity isn't in your heart, then cheap plastic light-up poorly made in China manger scenes (and biblically inaccurate I might add) aren't going to do anything to "win the community for Christ".

In fact:
Our job isn't to legislate into existence a Christian society, our calling is to demonstrate a Christ is the King community.

And I'm about to go all Grinch on you again (yes, in back-to-back posts!):
The Grinch did a whole lot more than change the name of Christmas--he took it all: trees, gifts, lights, roast beast and even the last ever-loving crumb from the last little mouse. And he didn't stop Christmas at all. . .not at all!!

You know how you stop "THEY" and "THEM"? You show THEM what a Christ-filled Christmas really is. . .even if they take the Baby Jesus ornaments off the tree in your own living room. . .you show them what Christ does:
He didn't whine when He was on the cross, when He was afflicted, mocked, ridiculed, naked and beaten. . .He said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. . ."

How did "THEY" handle that? THEY didn't. . .and THEY still can't. . .

And when the Whos down in Whoville didn't blink at what THEY had done to Christmas but decided to have them some Christmas anyways. . .what happened to THEY's heart? It burst out of its shriveled condition and grew three sizes that day. . .

So, enough says I. . .

Come on Whos, rise up and have a Christ-filled Christmas no matter what THEY do and let's make some hearts blow out some rib-cages. . .

Our cookies are good. Period.

Matt O.





 

Holiday Values Part 3

I went through a pretty severe disillusionment with the Christmas season, mocking traditions, cynically declaring everyone to be consumerist drones, and pointing out to anyone who listened how Santa was eerily close in spelling to Satan, a coincidence I thought was intentional.

I had become Mr. Grinch, and although I felt my "spiritual" reasons allowed me to be a stink-stank-stunk kind of guy--I began to realize something was wrong in my heart. . .

"You're a rotter, Mr. Grinch!

You're the king of sinful sots!

Your heart's a dead tomato,

Splotched with moldy, purple spots,

Mr. Grinch!

Your soul is an apalling dump-heap,

Overflowing with the most disgraceful

assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,

Mangled-up in tangled-up knots!"

That's not my favorite verse in the song but the one which accurately describes the negative knot of anger and judgment I'd been brewing for several years. . .to bring in another Christmas icon, I was Ebenezer Scrooge and my "Bah! Humbug!" was potent and freely given. . .

"But Matt, I'm with you, everyone's spending all this money and making Christmas about stuff! It's horrible!"

But don't we say Christmas is about the best gift of all? And that's why we give gifts?

So, how do we acquire gifts?

"Well, ideally, we'd make something."

But friend, not everyone can make something. . .and even those who do pay for the materials they use to make said products. The amount of people making gifts for others using only raw materials they produced from their own land is a small percent of a percent.

To give gifts to those you love requires, for the vast majority of us, buying something.

Is it wrong to buy gifts for others? I do not think so. In fact, I don't think it's wrong to buy extravagant gifts sometimes...perhaps you remember this story from the life of Jesus...

Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head.

Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. (Mark 14, the Message)

A gift given. . .

seemingly wasted. . .

so expensive it cost a year's wages. . .

the poor neglected. . .

. . .and Jesus blesses the giving of the gift. In the Luke recounting of the story, Jesus conveys she gave this gift out of gratitude and affection.

And on top of it all...it was perfume!! Perfume? A bottle of perfume worth my yearly salary? Are you kidding me? It's hard for me to think a plastic toy which costs $50 (outrageous!) is more wasteful than smelly liquid so expensive it could support my family for a year. . .

"Why are you baking those cookies?! You could use those hours serving in a soup kitchen! In fact, why are you even sleeping! You could be knitting socks for orphans in Africa right now!"

We can easily spiral out of control and become incredibly unhealthy when asking questions about gifts and Christmas and time...

The important question is:

am I giving gifts in love this Christmas?

Sometimes love is sacrificial and extravagant and ridiculous. . .and those kinds of gifts are the best.

I'm not being the Anti-Dave Ramsey here and telling you to go into debt and buy your spouse the surprise Lexus (heck, most of us would go into debt just buying the red bow on that Lexus) nor am I being Mr. Support Sweat Factories By Buying Foreign Toys...don't hear me with Grinch ears...

Jesus says our Heavenly Father know how to give us good gifts, but He says it right after He affirms that we know how to give good gifts to our children. I don't know if you see His endorsement for loving and blessing your kids there in that passage but I do.

God wasn't satisfied to just give us laws from Sinai or to just wipe our slates clean of our eternal debts, John says he lavished us with love and called us His children. Lavish. I like to say He smothered and covered us with His love. And He sent the lavish gift of His Son to a world that mostly ignores what that Son stands for. . .

Was God wasteful?

"But, but, Matt! You're being awful gracious--there's tons of greed, gluttony, selfishness, ignorance, and jealousy at Christmas that must be addressed!"

Ah, friend, those things aren't just present at Christmas, those are year round commodities, we Grinches just like to shine a light on it once a year. If we were really concerned about their pervasive presence we'd stand against them consistently and not just vocally during the Happy Holidays.

"Wait, you said Happy Holidays, are you one of them?!?"

Oh dear.

Matt O.

Grinch+Smile.jpg

Holiday Values Part 2

(Disclaimer: I'm about to write about family memories of Christmas gifts for kids. This blog is not an endorsement or value statement about how many gifts we should buy, how much money we should spend, materialism, etc. I will try to address the "consumerism of Christmas" a bit next week with Holiday Values Part 3. . .and now, on to our regularly scheduled blog. . .)

My parents did a great job balancing out the gifts between their three children every Christmas. If you had brothers or sisters, you know what "balancing out the gifts" means. . .

It means after the seven minutes it takes for child hands to shred open all those meticulously wrapped gifts and everyone is surrounded by Christmas morning shrapnel that when each child looks at their plunder and compares it to the plunder received by their siblings they think one of two things to themselves:
"I feel OK with the distribution of wealth in this place" OR
"I made out like a bandit. I'm clearly the winner this morning."

If parents can get each of their kids to think the kid version of one of those two statements then the gifts were officially balanced.

It is an art form and one my mom was brilliant at, because it's not just about the volume of gifts, it's about knowing how each kid ticks and what they really want. Mom would make sure we each got a "big gift"or a "cornerstone gift" as I like to think about it, and then filled in the rest of the haul with a deft combination of toys we wanted (GI Joe and Star Wars figures) and some stuff we needed (underwear and socks). The trick too was that if Mom knew she wasn't going to get you everything on the list to get the items that would joyously counteract and dismiss any temporal disappointment you may have at not getting the previously desired item. . .

I remember the only time when I did have a little discontentment, albeit very briefly.

My brother and I were already merging our menagerie of figures and vehicles into one grand storyline--the GI Joe jeep full of brand new characters driving up to the Ewok Village--and were busy determining who who would be the "good guys" and who would be the "bad guys" in today's exciting episode when I glance over at my little sister's treasure trove. . .

It was the year she got the Play Kitchen, you know the walk-in play kitchen with the oven that opened, cupboards filled with dishes and a vast supply of plastic groceries? My eyes went from her kitchen to our battlefield and I began to run some brief plastic to plastic comparisons and ratios and quickly realized how much more gift volume-wise she had received.

Here my brother and I were playing with a little world and there she was playing in a world. I almost got up and went over and asked if I could put the pretend muffin tray in the oven but then I remembered Han Solo and Road Block needed to put the hurting on The Emperor and Destro and my momentary pang of plastic envy receded. . .(the names in orange are links and are worth a click)

Unfortunately for many of us, we never get over the Plastic Walk-In Kitchen Envy I felt there for a few moments. . .we spend many days locked in mental bitterness that our plastic-to-plastic ratio is not fair or not what we wanted. During the Christmas season, it can be easy for our jealous eyes to lock onto the "perfect scenarios" that others have. . .from their income, to their families, to their traditions, to their seemingly drama free lives. . .

How do we combat this mentality?

I offer two brief thoughts:
1. Remember your Heavenly Father is way better than my mom at giving us what we need (and sometimes what we want!) and allowing us to know His goodness through His gifts. Gifts not made of temporary plastic but of more rich substance, the eternal elements of love, joy, peace, and hope.

2. After we three Orth children opened and played with our gifts for a while, we would pile up in the car and go to Grandma and Pappy Orth's house (of The Grandma Loop fame). The cool part was we could take our favorite toys with us and play with them there! So the gripping saga my brother and I had devised could go with us in the car. . .but guess what couldn't go with us? A big old honkin' plastic kitchen! When you look at others who "have it all" remember there is always more to their situation than meets the eye. . .more issues involved than just the illusion you see of the perfect life.

I'll leave you with Eugene Peterson's translation of Paul's concluding words to the church at Philippi:
I'm just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I've found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.

Matt O.



 

Holiday Values Part 1

Since debating ferociously about politics has become so passe, let's stir the pot with a bold subjective statement that I will declare as fact. . .

If you were a boy growing up in the 1980s, you grew up in the Golden Era of toys and every other era shrivels in jealousy at the glory of your majesty. . .

If this is a debate, I will make my opening three points:

Original Star Wars. Original GI Joe. Original Transformers.

Throw in the powerful sub-points of Masters of the Universe (He-Man), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron, and Original Thundercats as well. (These 4 alone could stomp on the heads of every Pokemon and Yugioh character every fashioned by a fourteen year old Japanese Animator)

What's that ladies? You thought I was an egalitarian type blogger? You're right, I am..  .feel free to claim the above toys as your own as well. . .and although it's not my main argument I'll make a few brief points for your traditional case as well. . .

Cabbage Patch Kids. Strawberry Shortcake. Care Bears. My Little Ponies. (I'd love to see a herd of stampeding My Little Ponies take care of a few Furrbies.)

OK, OK, We hear you Matt O! Any closing arguments?

Rubik's Cube and Original Nintendo? I rest my case.

Did pride well up in you if you grew up in that era and played with those toys? Post-80s readers, did the spirit of debate raise its head to defend your toys?

We are quick to defend what we value. . .no more so than when defending cultural items of nostalgia. . .or our favorite bands, movies, or sports teams.

This Christmas season. . .what do you value? What have you placed supreme importance on?
What are you defending. . .in your actions or in your mind?

Expectations of the perfect holiday or perfect meal? Pleasing other people? The dream of having a stress-free zone? The opportunity to splurge and get what you want? Your right to judge the holiday and other people as materialistic? Your one season of Gluttony (ouch)?


One of the great parts of the Kingdom of God is that Christians are not called to defend it but to be a witness to it as we live in its truth, justice, grace, joy, peace and love.

May we manifest these values first and foremost this season, and may we lay down the inner stresses and conflicts created by defending temporary and immediate values destined to fade. . .like once treasured toys discarded and forgotten in a closet, waiting to be packed in a cardboard box and given away. . .

(Unless of course, you have an original Millennium Falcon in the package. . .you can still gloat about that a little bit. . .)

Holiday Values Part 2 on Friday. . .

Matt O.

Vomit & Victory

Hello, my name is Matt and I'm a people watcher. I don't know when it started but there's no doubt I am addicted to people-watching. Addicted isn't even the right word--it implies some awareness of an unhealthy habit that can be broken--my people watching is more like breathing, an involuntary act woven into my daily natural rhythms. . .

One of my favorite things to observe is parenting (NOTE: I said observe and not judge. Although I make observations, I am not judging most of the time. The only perfect parents are those with no kids.) I love the spectrum of techniques and tricks, graces and disciplines that exist among parents and their wonderfully unique kids. . .

They dropped their pacifier! Do you. . .
A. Get out the Haz-Mat suit, pick it up with tongs, and send it off to the dry cleaners? Or
B. Put some extra dirt & hair on it and pop it back into their mouths to build up their immune system?

They just purposefully pulled the plant off the table which has crashed into a pile of pottery shards and dirt onto your floor. Do you. . .
A. Grab their one wrist and hold it above their heads and try to swat their bottom as they wail and spin around like a merry-go-round full of demons? OR
B. Look them in the eye and explain their behavior is a root condition of the Fall and they are going to be disciplined now and the purpose of discipline is redemptive behavior which is truly only possible through the sanctifying work of the Spirit which starts with repentance but it has to be sincere because God knows our hearts?

They've done their best to write manuals and provide parenting blogs, etc. but there isn't a once-for-all parenting book that gives the exact blueprint for raising children. . .and even those resources won't help when you're in the heat of a moment when your toddler waddles into the room, proud and smiling, with diaper contents in both hands and smeared on their face. . .

I remember the first time our first daughter, Micah, was old enough and sick enough to require medicine a little more potent than the Standard Issue Red Syrup. We thought she was ready to learn how to swallow a pill. . .

"OK, honey, this is a big person pill, you don't chew this, OK? You take a drink and you swallow it, OK? You just swallow it."

(We tend to say "OK" a lot when we're teaching kids new things.)

She filled her cheeks up with water and kept them poofed out.

"OK, now swallow it!"

She spits it all out into the sink. . ."It tastes terrible!"

"Yes it does, that's why you have to swallow it quickly. It's not that hard, it's just like swallowing. . ."

("A pill" is what I was going to say. . .Swallowing a pill is just like swallowing a pill. . .Arrggh, where's my parenting manual?!?)

"It's like swallowing a penny, remember that time you swallowed a penny?"

"You told me not to do that."

"Yes, yes I did. But now I'm telling you to swallow the pill like the time you swallowed the penny, but I'm not saying you now have a license to start swallowing money again."

Blank stare.

"Do you ever eat food so fast that sometimes you swallow, I don't know, like a piece of macaroni, without chewing it? It's just like that."

"You told me not to do that too."

"Suddenly you remember and are willing to obey everything I've ever told you."
(I can't remember if I thought that or said it out loud.)

Eventually, Team Awesome Parent went to go watch LOST. . .and we left her alone in the bathroom with the "if you want to feel better, you'll swallow that pill" ultimatum. Somehow through the many more projectile spits into the sink and a good half dozen wasted pills she figured out how to gulp it down on her own.  . .

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is where Jesus describes how as imperfect and sinful parents we love our children, giving them the best we can, and not intending to harm them. He then describes how much greater the love and desire to give good gifts is from our Heavenly Father towards us as His children (Matthew 7, Luke 11).

It's such a powerful thought and concept, given to us by Christ Himself. . .that we are loved with a perfect parental love, a divine other-wordly affection and protection. . .a parental love we can only imagine in part as we examine our own imperfect love and care for our kids.

I think about the concept frequently, and I often think of it in the "how much more" way Jesus shared. Recently, a friend of mine had his first real medical situation with his first child, barely a toddler in age. We discussed that hopeless feeling as your kid feels terrible but there's no way to help them understand why things are the way they are. . .we can only offer what comfort we can. You want them to know: you're there for them. . .and one day it will be all better.

The worst is when the kid is throwing up for the first time: the poor thing gives you those puppy dog eyes, pleading with you to explain what's happening, as the vomit just uncontrollably comes from their mouth. . .

"How Much More?" came back to me in the midst of our discussion. . .

Does God (and through our history of development as people, Has God,) had "swallow a pill" moments with us? Moments where we as a people, a culture, or an individual are crying to Him in prayers and puppy dog eyes asking Him why things are the way they are and there just aren't  words for us to comprehend? No perfect analogy to describe it?

I think of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. . .we as God's toddler creations experiencing vomiting sickness (some way worse than others). . .and I picture God as a parent. . .wanting to explain why things are the way they are. . .and knowing there's no way for us to grasp fully what's going on. . .

I'm not trying to solve the problem of evil, or make light of it. . .by no means. But I do know, when I am confronted with the fact a benevolent God exists but yet great and seemingly random suffering exists as well. . .that our God is a parent who cares and comforts even when we receive nothing but silence to our questions of "Why?". He gives us all the answers we can handle and all the comfort He can. . .

I know this because this is the message and hope He's given us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a message we can understand:
God knows the illness and has done something about it. . .and is doing something about it even now and one day will completely and forever do something about it.
In the meantime, His Spirit is with us in the illness. . .individual and indwelling care from the Parent who perhaps wishes they could explain more but knows it is beyond our understanding.

It may not make the vomiting any less painful, but it helps to know our Parent is there for us. . .and one day it will be all better. . .

Matt O.



The Grandma Loop

Pete was a gangly Mormon with an easy smile. I was a scrawny late-blooming eighth-grader good at turning that smile into laughter. Our friendship blossomed on the Jr. High track team one spring as we both tried out for the distance team knowing everyone got to run the mile and there would be no cuts.

Each afternoon practice our chiseled coach who doubled as the shop teacher would give us a Xeroxed  map (Today you would say "printed" or "copied") with a hand-drawn line on the roads we were to run. In the upper corner, in perfect all-capitals printing, was the name of the "Loop" for the day's training and its distance. A popular one we received that I remember was the Falling Springs Loop, 4.1 miles. . .and an ungodly amount of hills.

Pete and I ended up running the loops together most days at a pace known as a "slog", a slow jog. It's the pace most of us normal humans run after age 35. . .not like those abnormal jerks out there peeling off a half marathon at a six minute pace when they should be eating dinner at 4:30 pm and watching Judge Judy. . .

It became apparent in my soul at the tender age of thirteen that I was not what people in the biz would call a runner, and so my little mind began to think about other Loops Pete and I could run together. . .

I ran some quick figures and pitched a scheme to Pete. . .

Let's slog away from the school like everyone else except today we'll bring some cash in our pockets and peel away when the pack gets drawn out. . .

. . .and go to Dunkin Donuts. We'll eat a few or eight donuts and pace our return to arrive at our normal mediocre time and also to prevent projectile vomiting. . .

It was a rush, both of adrenaline and sugar, our friendship growing in the way only possible by a shared secret, powdered sugar on our faces as we laughed at the world and Kenyan marathoners and algebra and girls who were missing out on our looks and character.

It was also very scary. The risk-reward ratio was just too high in my nefarious mind so I went back to the deception drawing board and came up with the Grandma Loop. . .

My town in Pennsylvania is very typical of northern towns, arranged in blocks by mostly perpendicular streets, houses going at least two stories in the air and tightly pressed together. The design makes it easy to navigate and allows many homes and businesses to be concentrated in a small area. My grandparents lived right across the street from the elementary school I had gone to and had watched me every day after school, and now they lived just a few blocks away from the high school where our track team practiced. . .

The Grandma Loop gave us a few advantages over the Donut Loop: it was closer, it was much easier to avoid getting spotted, and Grandma wouldn't charge us for snacks. . .

The first time Pete and I knocked on the door, Grandma about exploded with joy. . .grandparents love visits but they really love surprise visits. She busted out the Pepsi and  pretzels and we had a great conversation; Grandma was always so good at asking questions about your life and about what you thought about certain things (usually prompted by the local news or the old Donahue talk show)

My grandfather, or Pappy as we called him, sat on the couch with his legs stretched out, ankles crossed, working a cigarette in the corner of his lips, hands free, the way the old school guys can, making it dangle there effortlessly, giving off the aura of the greatest generation in steady wisps of cancerous cloud. . .

He would join in the conversation slightly, but not with his usual gusto or wit. Pappy was my hero in many ways but particularly the way he moaned as the victim in every situation with self-deprecating exaggeration, winking at you after he'd made the case of why his life was so horrible. . .

Or maybe I looked up to him so much because when we all went out to eat at a buffet together, everyone would return to the table carrying a salad, except Pappy, who often came back with a plate of pudding and would sit down and simply say "I love pudding." (He often washed down the main course with another round of pudding by declaring "That pudding was good, I think I'll have another.")

It was the third time Pete and I had run the Grandma Loop, and the pretzels and Pepsis were already on the coffee table and Grandma had been looking for us at the door. . .

Two minutes into the conversation and Pappy interrupted the flow, taking over. . .and I will never forget his speech that day.

"Matthew, we need to talk. We love you and we love seeing you, we really do. But you're deceiving your parents and your coach and your team by coming here every day, and though we love having you here--we can't be a part of the deception any longer. You need to be honest Matthew; it's called integrity."


"Butch, you're being too hard on him."

"No I'm not Posey, this is what he needs to hear."

They used their pet names with each other and then they caught each others' eye and Grandma knew he was right. . .

. . .and I knew he was right, and I still know he was right to this day. I always remember The Grandma Loop: there may be a way to get some free snacks and still fool everyone but it's not the way an honest life is supposed to be lived.

But I do know of a time when Pappy himself wasn't honest-- when he deceived not a track team, but an entire military. . .and he didn't do it for donuts. He needed to be seventeen to fight in World War II, but he was only sixteen. . .but back then a little white lie like that was easy to pull off. . .

My Pappy passed away a few years ago and I miss him greatly. The last times I visited him in PA we would go to the local Veteran's club and have soup together, surrounded by forgotten pillars of integrity as they meticulously crumbled saltines into plastic bowls, cold draft beers standing diligent at lonely tables, heads nodding to each other with a weight and depth of knowledge being lost in our social networked era. . .

Last night on Veteran's Day we broke our usual dinner routine and actually had a dessert. And as my thirteen year old daughter and I ate our pudding together, we remembered a man of integrity who I was blessed to call Pappy. . .

Matt O.

(RIP Wendell Paul "Whitey, Butch, Skeetz" Orth, I hope they have horseshoes where you are. . .)