Category Archives: It’s My Life

Friday Night Football

Last night I went to a high school football game for the first time since I was a sophomore in high school, back in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. I never attended a football game at the California school where I attended my last two years of high school, and haven’t attended one since. Haven’t had a reason to. But last night Pam’s niece, Kelsey, was playing the sousaphone in the Whitco marching band, and since Pam’s Mom and step-dad were out from California, we all went.

They honored the Whitco team that won the state championship 20 years ago. Probably 40 players from that team, along with coaches and various other personnel, including five cheerleaders, were lined up in front of the home crowd during halftime, and the announcer read off information about each one–name, the person’s position/role in 1986, where the person lives now, and where he/she works. I was amazed that the vast majority of them still live in the general area, with a large number still in South Whitley. Interesting. Only one guy was wearing his letter jacket, or could fit into his letter jacket, and he was serving in the military in Alabama.

Beyond that, I have no great insights to share. No wise ruminations about then-and-now, how sports brings a small town together, kids today vs. in my era, and nonsense like that. So I’ll stop.

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The Obnoxious Cellphone Guy

Last Saturday the hotel sent me a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call so I could get to the Phoenix rental car terminal, return my rental car, take the shuttle to the airport, check my bag, wade through security, and make my 8:00 flight. Which turned out to be way more than enough time. A 5:00 wake-up call would have done it.

On the flight from Phoenix to Chicago, a guy was talking on his cell phone as our plane taxied onto the runway. A passenger a few rows up turned around and told him to turn it off–“It’s dangerous,” he said. He hung up and said he was turning off the phone. But as the plane began rising from the runwway, become airborne, I looked back (he was just behind me, across the aisle), and he was leaning down in his seat talking on the phone again. He thought if people couldn’t see him, they wouldn’t hear him. Wrong.

“Hey, turn it off!” I instructed sternly. Another passenger told him the same thing. He kept talking. “Don’t mess around!” I said, sternlier. “The other passenger said the exact same thing. And the guy finally hung up. Jerk.

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A Friend from Way Back

Gilbertsons

Steve and Donna Gilbertson book-ending their three kids.

Last Thursday, while in Phoenix, I stopped in to see my old friend Steve Gilbertson. He’s planting a church called Sanctuary in Cave Creek, a very interesting outlying community in Phoenix–a touch cowboy, a touch bohemian, several touches of other things. After the conference ended for the day, I drove out to the new house they are ready to move into.

Steve goes back farther than any other friend I have–back to junior high youth group days in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. His dad and my dad were good friends at the United Brethren church there. Steve and I quizzed together on some championship quiz teams. He went into the ministry, and in 1989 followed my dad as pastor of the UB church in Fountain Hills, Ariz., also part of the Phoenix metro area. He left there a couple of years ago, and is now doing what he’s always had a passion for doing: planting a new church.

Steve and Donna asked me where I wanted to eat. I said, “Something local. Anything but a chain.” Donna said, “We don’t have any chains here.” Which is fascinating. There’s a Dairy Queen, but that’s it. Cave Creek doesn’t allow street lights, so the place is kind of dark at night; that, too, is fascinating. They suggested a variety of places, and we settled on a steakhouse called The Satisfied Frog. The hysterical part is that The Satisfied Frog is just down the road from a restaurant called The Horny Toad.

We talked and talked and talked, which is what Steve and I always do when we get together. He’s a truly independent, unconventional thinker, and I like to fancy myself that way. This is a friendship I greatly cherish, and which has endured strong for 30 years.

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The MinistryCOM Conference

Last Thursday and Friday I attended the MinistryCOM conference in Phoenix, Ariz. I hadn’t heard about this organization until I received an email about it. It’s designed for church communications professionals, which is my gig in life. This was their second annual convention. I’ll plan to attend every year.

Most of the attendees came from large, large churches which actually need someone to work fulltime in communications. Some had entire communications departments. This takes in a bunch of areas: marketing, graphics, the internet, public relations, information technology. The focus was more strategy than techie.

The level of competence, creativity, and commitment (three C’s! I should write sermons!) was extraordinary. I gained something from every keynote session and every seminar (most conferences throw in at least a few losers).

We met at Christ’s Church of the Valley, a 10,000-person church in Peoria, on the northwest side of the Phoenix metro area. My goodness, what a sprawling campus! The property at CCV, as it’s known, featured many buildings; this being Arizona, you don’t need hallways and enclosed walkways. The church holds four services each weekend–two on Saturday, two on Sunday. They promote them as “identical services.” Off of the sanctuary was a bookstore, a nice coffeehouse (with wireless access), and a scramble-system food court. Scores of tables sat outside, most under umbrellas or open-sided enclosures. Southwestern architecture is my favorite, and this church uses it beautifully.

When MinistryCOM attendees identified themselves, they usually gave the size of their church, not in a pecking order kind of way, but for context. I concluded that churches below 2000 round off to the nearest 100 (nobody said, “We have 1750 people”), churches above 2000 round off to the nearest 500 (so there’s no 5300, just 5500), and somewhere around 7000 or so, they begin rounding off to the nearest 1000. My size of church rounds off to the nearest 5 (do I say we have 120 people, or 125?). I didn’t meet anyone in a church with less than 1000 people, but my experience, in our denomination, is that they round off to the nearest 50.

I learned a lot, and I’ll inflict it upon my blog in the days ahead.

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Adventures in Flying

I’m sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for my 50-minute flight back to Fort Wayne. I’ve been in Phoenix attending the MinistryCOM conference, a really wonderful event. I haven’t flown since November 2002, just after the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) took over all airport security. My, a lot has changed in that time. Here are some of my observations and experiences from this trip.

  • I used etickets for the first time. Booked everything through Orbitz by myself. Very nice. Orbitz sent voicemail to my cellphone with each leg of the flight. For instance, after arriving in Chicago, an Orbitz voicemail informed me that the Fort Wayne flight was on schedule, and told me the gate number and time of departure. I never had to produce tickets anywhere. Nice.
  • I loved the self-checkin stations. Swipe a credit card, and the machine identifies you. Put in your flight number, and it calls up your itinerary. Indicate how many bags need to be checked, and then the machine prints out your boarding passes for each leg of your trip.
  • In Fort Wayne, I set off the alarm several times, and the TSA guy waved me over to a section for wanding and frisking. At that point I was in my socks, cargo shorts, and polo shirt. No watch. No cell phone. Nothing metal in my pockets. The guy asked me if I had a prosthetic implant, like a fake knee. I said no. A few seconds later, he asked again, “Are you sure you haven’t had a surgical implant of some kind?” I think I might remember something like that. Anyways, a guy came and explained exactly what he would do, and said that when he frisked me, he would only use the back of his hand. Which, of course, made it perfectly okay for a guy to run his hands over my body. The problem turned out to be the multiple snaps in my cargo shorts. Fortunately, I didn’t need to remove my shorts.
  • The TSA employees were very professional and friendly. In Phoenix, the guy in front of me handed his boarding pass and a photo ID to the TSA guy at the head of the line. It wasn’t a good photo. The TSA guy asked if he could provide his driver’s license. The man pulled it from his wallet and said, “The photo doesn’t look anything like me.” The TSA official looked at the driver’s license, looked at the man, and then said, “Now I know why you gave me the other photo.” We all chuckled.
  • The boarding passes have a group number on them. Instead of boarding by aisles, as they once did–“Now boarding aisles 23 through 35”–we board by groups. Group one is always frirst class, and they board first, the snooty elites. On the last flight, I was group two, and we were the rows in the back. So they don’t go in order, from front to back of the plane.
  • On the flight to Phoenix from Chicago, a three-hour flight, all of the flight attendants were guys. One, if he colored his hair entirely gray (it was already partially gray), would have looked like Taylor Hicks from Americdan Idol. And I would have asked him to show us a dance move.
  • I had no trouble finding bin space for my carry-on laptop bag. In the past, people lugged aboard massive garment bags and anything else they could carry. I would get aboard early, lest all bin space be taken. But now that they’ve clamped down on carry-ons, I can board last and still have no trouble.
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Turning 50 and Getting Honest

I’ll turn 50 next month, and I’m giving myself a gift. Actually, I’ve been working on this gift since early May, and I’m hoping that by the time I actually cross the Great 50 Divide, I’ll have a good sense of what the gift looks and acts like.

The gift is authenticity.

At this point in my life, I feel confident enough about my place in the universe that I don’t feel the need to impress, to protect, to defend, to spout the party line. No longer do I want to play games, trying to seem better at this or that than I really am, whether it’s an issue of occupational competence or spiritual vitality or intellectual knowledge. It’s not like I’ve been a big fake, a phony, a political games-player. Over the years I’ve been pretty open and honest. And yet, streaks of embedded inauthenticity run through my daily life, which I’ve discovered (with dismay) during the past few months as I’ve been trying to excise falsity from my deeply-ingrained habits and tendencies.

I want to grow in being honest, transparent, vulnerable, genuine, open. I don’t want to tell people what they want to hear, or what they expect to hear from me as a denominational suit. I don’t want to only voice sentiments that are safe, whether at work or church or in general relationships. I don’t want to play the part of an all-knowing, all-spiritual church elder, when my knowledge and spirituality fall way below allness. I want to stop playing Christian one-upmanship games, end the reign of pretense in so many nooks and crannies of my Christian character, and slay the remaining dragons of insecurity which give rise to self-justification, defensiveness, and excuses. I want to have no inhibitions about saying, “Wow, I really goofed that one up,” or “I was wrong, and you were right.”

Authenticity doesn’t require that I turn into a blunt jerk who dumps critical crap on people and says things like, “You know, you’ve got really ugly ears. Hey, I’m just trying to be honest.” There is still a matter of appropriateness and discretion. But you get the idea. Writing regularly in this blog is actually very good practice in being authentic.

So that’s my birthday present to myself. I’m working on it every day, trying to flesh out what it means, though I keep encountering bastions where genuineness remains locked out. But that’s where I’m headed. And so far, I’ve found it quite liberating.

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Big Talk About the Poor

I’m an advocate for taking care of the poor, underprivileged, and dispossessed in our midst. Or am I?

These people are definitely on my conscience. Have been since 1981, when I heard former UPI reporter Wes Pippert speak at a press convention. Pippert, in addition to being an ace reporter at the top of his profession, was also an Old Testament scholar. A brilliant guy whom I first heard speak when I was a student at Huntington College. At this convention, he explained how, throughout the Old Testament, God’s judgment or blessing on a nation was usually tied to how well it took care of its poor people.

Pippert’s words planted a seed in me which has grown, slowly, ever since. Until then (I was two years out of college), despite having grown up in wonderful evangelical churches, the poor were not on my radar. Which makes me wonder why the heck we United Brethren have this huge blindspot regarding something central to God’s heart. Whatever the case, during the past 25 years the poor have been on my radar with ever-increasing pings, and Pippert’s words have been repeatedly reinforced. It’s now something I believe strongly.

But has it made any difference in my life, beyond self-righteous, idealistic sniveling about the need to care for the poor? Mark Driscoll writes in Radical Reformission, “Ideals become values only if they are lived out.” Well, it would be fashionably humble to beat up on myself, but the truth is, my behavior and attitude have come a long way. Yes, I live in a nice house and blow a lot of discretionary income. And yet, there are things I do and don’t do that demonstrate a change from ten years ago.

Through my current church, I hang out with people on the lower end of the economic scale. They are my friends, and I care about them in a hands-on way. I’ve gone beyond just writing checks to someone else who works around poor people. What started when Pippert plucked my conscience has blossomed into something that really matters. But not nearly as much as I’d like it to matter. And as much as it will matter, I hope, next year, and the year after that. I’m still more of a talker than a doer. But I’m glad to be more than an idealist, too.

Many fundamental attitudinal changes take years. Wes Pippert’s message wasn’t a Damascus Road experience for me, where I suddenly turned 180 degrees. Rather, it started me on a really long journey. And now, after 25 years, I find myself way way down that road. And I should take some pleasure in that. I can look at other areas in which change has come not through a crisis experience, but through a steady progression. Like my thinking regarding how Christians should view the environment, gays, politics, spending habits, war and peace, and much more. I’m also learning to be patient with people who are also on a journey of attitude-change, and not expect any amount of harping on my part to transport them to the place it took me 20 years to reach.

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Vampire Dreams

Last night I dreamed about a master vampire who was tolerating my presence, but from whom I needed to escape. However, it’s not easy escaping from vampires. After all, they can fly.

I’ve always liked vampire lore, and enjoy watching vampire movies just to get the different take people have on them (where they came from, how they act, etc.). I remember the first vampire movie I saw, back when we lived in Pennslyvania, which put it somewhere in grades 4-7. That movie was set in the Old West, and the vampire was ultimately killed by a silver bullet. I’m sure it was a cheesy movie, which is why I’ve not heard of it since. But I found it interesting.

Later, there was the TV show “Night Stalker,” which I really liked. More recently there was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” two shows that Pam and I watched with great devotion. And many vampire movies have come out in recent years, including one I saw (most of) on a recent Saturday morning, a really really bad vampire movie staring Jon Bon Jovi as the slayer.

So it’s not strange that a vampire should show up in my dreams. In this particular dream, the vampire was distracted upon discovering a barn filled with victims, and that’s when I chose to make my getaway, with the help of someone with a boat. This person, in arranging my getaway, broke into a lengthy Broadway-style song and dance which was quite spectacular. The choreography was superb, and I awoke with the tune and words (they rhymed, too) still in my head.

This part of the dream, no doubt, relates to having watched the musical “Rent” that night. I’d been looking forward to seeing this movie for a long time. However, though it had some very good moments, I was disappointed. Beyond the opening song, nothing struck me as worth listening to a second time (unlike the wonderful “High School Musical”). Plus, there were two homosexual couples and only one heterosexual couple, and I wasn’t all that crazy about that.

Frankly, I think the song my subconscious mind dreamed up was as good as anything in the movie. And I tell people I’m not any good at writing songs!

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My Disgraceful Garage

My garage is Beirut, circa 1984. A tangled wasteland of cords and bottles and tools and spare parts and other household debris, very little of it organized and, on short notice, findable.

So that was today’s project: clean the garage. I started with the work bench, piled high with, well, just about everything. Forget about finding a tool there. Easier to just go to Lowe’s and get a new one.

Dad helped me build that workbench. Actually, I helped–minimally–him build it. It may be the only thing we’ve ever built together. I should take better care of it. His own work bench–verily, his entire garage–is pristine, everything in its place. I didn’t get that gene. Neither did Stu. Neither did Rick. I guess that gene is still waiting for Child Number Four, which, obviously, ain’t gonna happen apart from Abrahamic circumstances.

Well, it’s 9 pm, and I just finished with the work bench. Didn’t think it would take this long. Everything is organized nicely, and there is actually emtpy space on which, heaven forbid, actual work could be committed in the name of home improvement. The shelf below the work space is cleaned up, too. Didn’t get to the stuff clear on the bottom, on the floor itself amidst multitudinous cobwebs.

The rest of the garage is still a mess. I began the day with ambitions to make the whole place sparkle, but alas, I began and ended with the workbench. Maybe next week. Or next spring. We’ll see.

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Notes from a Vacation and Band Concert

Got back late this afternoon from a few days of vacation up in Pentwater, Mich., where Pam’s Dad has a beautiful cabin (four bedrooms! decks galore!) along Lake Michigan. We hadn’t been there in we’re not sure how many years, and that’s a shame, because the place is fabulous. I must have walked 50 yards into the lake without the water reaching my neck.

Pam and I read. And read. And read. I made major dents in four books, but didn’t finish any of them: Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics, Ann Lamott’s Plan B, Don Miller’s Searching for God Knows What, and Robert Parker’s Back Story, which I took by mistake, having forgotten that I read it a few years ago. But I’m now two-thirds of the way through it again.

On Thursday night, we attended Pentwater’s weekly band concert in the park. It’s not really a concert. People who play band instruments show up (or not) and arrange themselves on chairs under the covered gazebo. There doesn’t seem to be a director. After each song, they pause for a minute or so, then the drummer signals the next song, and off they go. An hour of that. Not the best band-playing you’ve ever heard, but quite enjoyable. But the music isn’t what interested me most. It was the overall atmosphere.

Hundreds of people gathered, carrying their bag-chairs and lawn chairs and blankets, and dogs, and scattered on the lawn surrounding the gazebo. I had been told this was one of the last remaining pieces of Americana, a quaint tradition that brought the whole community together. And that’s pretty much what it was.

As the band played, most people listened approvingly as little girls jump-danced in front. Moms and daughters entwined fingers and swayed to the music. Fathers propped young’ns atop their shoulders. They swayed, too. Meanwhile, townspeople flitted around, saying hello and getting caught up and, no doubt, remarking about the price of gasoline.

One tall, lanky girl with braces and a blue cap dropped to the grass in front of our bag-chairs and said, “Can I pet your dog?” She was talking about Sylvia, Jim and Ann’s tan Labrador Retriever. “Sure you can.” She caressed Sylvia for a bit, then moved on to other people’s dogs. By the end of the hour, I’m sure she had spent some time with every dog there. And we’re talking quite a few dogs. No pit bulls or otherwise mean-looking dogs. These were Labs and cockers and my favorite, a shepherd-husky mix, just a pup, whose fur seemed as soft as cotton. Gobs of people stopped to pet that dog.

Pentwater is a small resort town along the lake. The highway goes down the main street, which hosts numerous gift shops, two ice cream shops, and no small amount of realty companies, which no doubt make big commissions on each sale, because Pentwater property ain’t cheap. Lots of summer homes here. That’s what Jim and Ann’s place is, basically. They can’t even get to it during most of the winter, with all the steep hills amidst the lakeside forest. The rest of the year, they live in Fort Wayne.

Pentwater doesn’t allow any chain restaurants or stores. No McDonalds, no Walgreens, no DQ. There were chain banks (like the Huntington Bank) and chain churches (United Methodist, Lutheran, etc.), but all of the stores were homegrown, home-owned. Nice. There was no convenient place to erect a Wal-Mart.

I would enjoy living in Pentwater just for those Thursday night concerts. Quaint, traditional, family-friendly. A place of community. People of all ages gathering together every week. Bring the children. Lingering Americana, indeed.

I loved the atmosphere. But toward the end, I noticed something significant. There were no blacks, no hispanics, no Asians. Just Caucasians. Middle, upper-middle, and upper-class Caucasians. A very homogenous group.

This caused some reflection on my part. How would the presence of blacks and hispanics and Asians change the atmosphere? Would it necessitate different styles of music? Would the use of other languages harm the sense of cohesiveness which made the event so charming? What about just adding some working class people, or downright poor people? Would it kill the event? Would disparate people not care to come together?

Can an event popularized by such a non-diverse group, both racially and economically, be considered true Americana? What is Americana, anyway? Why am I using a word when I don’t really know what it means?

Those are some of the things I reflected on. Not in any kind of a judgmental way. I just noticed the makeup of the crowd, thought about it some, and still thoroughly approved. Afterwards we got ice cream at the House of Flavors and called it a night. They had a doggie cup of vanilla for free. Ann says Sylvia looks forward to that every week.

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