Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Face In The Crowd

They rolled in like waves breaking on the shore. Small cars, SUVs and pickups threaded their way through road construction traffic cones and formed rows in the dirt outside our church parking lot last night. As they parked, families of all types and sizes emptied out and made their way onto our campus filled with our volunteers ready to serve them.

As people checked through the makeshift gates, they were welcomed by smiling workers handing out candy at "Trunk & Treat" stations. A few feet away was someone else hosting a game aimed at kids. The games awarded tickets which were redeemed for prizes.

A long row of "show cars" and motorcyles were available to keep the attention of afficionados while their kids were having fun.

Along the way there were clowns doing face painting, a variety of inflatables and a cake walk. We offered a food court with hot dogs, nachos, baked potatoes, soft drinks and over 20 varieties of homemade chili. We even had a special area for "Tiny Tots" where the preschool crowd had fun prepared just for them.

They rolled in like waves breaking on the shore. Moms, dads and grandparents brought their children to "Family Fall Festival."

I spent the evening walking around. My job was to greet people, answer questions and make sure our volunteers had everything they needed. Candy gets handed out fast in a setting like this and I discovered some of our "Trunk & Treat" stations were running low. I headed to our office to get reinforcements.

That's when I saw him. He was sitting in a chair near the door to the office and away from the foot traffic. Honestly, if I hadn't seen him right next to the building I was entering, I would never have noticed him. He was just a face in the crowd. A drop in a small ocean of people.

He wasn't in my way, but his offer to move gave me a brief moment to look into his face. Those eyes told me a story. This was a humble man, a poor man. His body language said that he works hard, and his load is heavy. This man who obviously wanted his family to have some joy on this night also had limited ability to buy them much. I think he felt uneasy being here, but he came because we offered family fun at no cost.

His face also said he was grateful. He didn't want to be a bother. He didn't want to get in the way. He didn't expect others to carry his burden, but life circumstances demanded that he accept what was offered.

He had been sitting there, almost invisible. But when I collected my thoughts from the evening, I remembered him. That's when I recalled the words of Jesus...

18 God's Spirit is on me; he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor... To set the burdened and battered free,
19 to announce, "This is God's year to act!"
Luke 4:18-19 (MSG)

Last night, in a very small way, we were able to take action. I hope the way we did it offered a small bit of kindness and a Message of good news to a face in the crowd.

Friday, October 31, 2008


It was the day after Halloween. 6th Grade. A guy in my class named Johnny showed up with a grocery-sized paper bag containing more candy than should be legal. He had already eaten to his heart's content, but probably brought this to school so he would have something to do during recess. The night before, Johnny and a friend hit the streets of our town. Block by block and house by house, they kept adding to their treasure. They took their bounty home and ate candy for days.

That was almost a half century ago and I still remember it. Why? We didn't live in town. The rural area where I grew up contained neighbors spaced well apart. Even if we had lived in town, my parents wouldn't have turned me loose on a Halloween treasure hunt -- not at that age. For us, though, Halloween was putting on our selected costume, "ruining it" by bundling into coats and climbing into the family car. Then my mom would take us around to a few houses in the area, where we would "Trick or Treat" and add our treats to brown, paper lunch bags. If we did well, our candy might make it through the next day. Bummer! Life just wasn't fair.

I pause to remember on this October 31st. I can't recall all the homes we visited on Halloween, but here are some I do remember. Mrs. Sage was a lady down the road who lived in a tiny, run-down house. She was also my first piano teacher. I had forgotten until now that she is the person who taught me "Middle C" and opened a new world of beautiful music to me.

Mrs. Dean seemed old back then. She was. The last time I visited her, I had long been an adult and she was still spry and sharp. She lived on past her 100th birthday. When I think of her, I realize that I never knew her that well, but every time we were around her, I could feel her love for us.

Grandpa and Grandma Norris had moved down from their homestead in the mountains and got a place about a half mile away. Trick or Treating at their house is what I remember best. It's not because of the goodies they had for us. Instead, I can still remember them greeting us and welcoming us into their house. I can hear Grandma's voice and see Grandpa at his old chair in their tiny living room. I can feel the bond of what it means to be family. I now know the happiness they felt when their grandkids arrived.

Johnny's Halloween treasure is long gone. I'm still enjoying mine.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ben Casey? Dr. Kildare? Can you hear me?

I've never -- that I remember -- watched an episode of ER. I couldn't remember the name of Grey's Anatomy until I looked it up. My kids will be asking, "Who?" but where are Casey and Kildare when I need them?

I went to bed Tuesday evening with an unhappy stomach. "Unhappy" turned downright mean in the wee hours of the morning. I had cramps bad enough to want to cry out (I know I'm a wuss) and apparently I fought them by tensing up about every other muscle I could think of squeezing. This morning, the stomach was somewhat settled, but the muscles hurt -- oh, they hurt!

When I was a kid, I was prone to high fevers. Toward the end of high school, I was happily on my way to a perfect attendance award. (It was a huge accomplishment because I missed chunks of Jr. High home sick.) I can remember sitting in one of my favorite classes and the aches were zapping me. I finally put my head down on the desk because I couldn't keep it up. My teacher was Mrs. Hollinger, an old family friend, and she told me I had to report to the nurse's office.

By that evening, I was delirious and my fever was spiking to 105. I was sick with the flu for several days, perfect attendance was gone and... oh, well.

Fast forward to the last few days of Basic Combat Training in the US Army. About 5 days before graduation, I got sick. I had been on sick call a few weeks earlier and discovered that, according to army medics, some cough syrup and plenty of bed rest (yeah, right!) would take care of just about anything. What got cured was my desire to go on sick call. Maybe that was their purpose!

Here I was sick and getting worse each day. I didn't want to go on sick call because I had the privilege of student-leading our platoon and would march in a special place as part of the graduation ceremony.

I almost passed out on the parade ground at dress rehearsal, but doggedly kept going. I made it through the grad ceremony and, while most of my unit went on a pass into town, I went to bed. Finally, after dark that night, I went down to the day room and talked to the young Drill Instructor who had duty. He immediately got a couple of guys to escort me and sent me to the hospital across the street.

A medic came out, gave me the "what kind of duty are you shirking?" look and stuck a thermometer in my mouth. He pulled it out a couple of minutes later, walked out of the room and came back in with a mask on his face. Uh-oh. Whatever I had, he didn't want. It was serious enough (just a bad case of the flu) for them to admit me to the hospital for the next three days. It's another story, but that hospital stay changed my assignment for my next school and made it possible for Cathy and me to live off-post. We couldn't have done so in my original unit.

Our church got very sick about 10 years ago. At the time it felt like a terminal illness, but turned out to be a bad case of the flu. By God's grace, that sickness actually improved our overall health.

I write this in the late afternoon. I'm still aching, but no fever. I think I'll feel much better tomorrow.

Cancel the Dr. appointment!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When You're Weary, Feelin' Small...

Claude Monet had the ability to paint what few others seemed to see. His ability to bring out the beauty of nature by highlighting contrasts of light, shadows and colors has helped millions open their eyes to a world they had previously missed.

I am increasingly amazed at relatively simple contrasts that make up glaring punctuations in the ministry of Jesus Christ. For instance, these two verses...

But Jesus ... didn't do many miracles there because of their hostile indifference.
Matthew 13:58 (The Message)

One day He was teaching ... and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.
Luke 5:17 (New American Standard Bible)

In other words, Jesus had the ability to "see" what others missed. The spiritual atmosphere wasn't the same everywhere he went. Light, shadows, colors. Hang with me; I'm going somewhere.

I have a friend who pastors a church in a small town on the other side of our state. In spite of his excellent education, great mind and good people skills, his church struggles. His town struggles. At times, you might even call it "hostile indifference."

In this difficult place, my friend recently made a commitment to stay. He knows there are places where the darkness isn't so prevalent. He knows he could go to a place more aware of the light of God's power. He has even wrestled recently with an unusual depression that might drive lesser faith people away.

We live in a culture where many would say to him, his church and his town: "Just start believing! Everything will get better!" If it were that easy, the Creator of Light (Colossians 1:16) could have just walked into Nazareth in Mathew 13, pushed the doubters aside and started massive miracles. But it doesn't usually work that way.

On the canvas of life, darkness gains prominence a brushstroke at a time. It can take years to fully envelope a place. It can take years of light to push it away.

That's what my friend is doing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Magic Number

I was tagged by my daughter Beth to tell seven things about myself you might not know. (I talk for a living so some of you know way too much about me already!) Here goes...

1. My first love as a kid was music. I started playing clarinet in the band when I was in 6th grade. By my sophomore year in High School, I was Drum Major and Student Conductor. I even helped write halftime shows. My first three years in college, I majored in Music Ed. I picked up vocal music along with instrumental and my first ministry jobs included directing choir and congregational music.

2. During High School, I got my FCC license and started working as a disc jockey the summer before my senior year. That trade actually reappeared a couple of times to help me make some money while going to college.

3. When we first came to Yuma, our church was on television. The former radio background helped me a lot. Someone told me that one of the downfalls of preaching on TV is that you have to go a long way from home to sin. (That's supposed to be funny!) TV really proved to be ineffective for us and I'm glad we don't do it anymore. Blogs are more fun!

4. I have three great kids. Many of you know that. What you may not know is that they are all smart (like their mother), good-looking (like their mother), disciplined (like their mother), and at times a bit ornery (like someone else, but not their mother).

5. I grew up in Socorro, New Mexico. If you asked me if any famous people were born there, I would say, "No. Only babies." On the other hand, it's known as the hometown of Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels and, in the 50s or 60s, Disney did a series about a sheriff from there named Elfego Baca. He was a real person and I grew up knowing a member or two from his family.

6. I have the best grandkids on the planet. Just ask Cathy.

7. I want to be Kenny G or Tom Hanks when I grow up.

Beth was great to tag me, along with six other bloggers she knows. Therefore, since I'm a newbie at this stuff, Beth, will you please tag seven more for me?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mending Fences

Preaching three times on Sunday morning is mentally and physically taxing. By the time I arrive home, I wonder if my brain is mush or spaghetti. Fortunately, Cathy has lunch pretty much ready to go after my quick change of clothes. My custom is to eat, finish the Sunday paper and head to a nap.

It's almost never exciting when the phone rings right after lunch and Cathy says it's for me. My brain screams for the release of a dream and my head wants to shake "no" when I put the communication gadget to my ear.

"Sam, this is someone you haven't spoken to in a long time." As I hear the words, the voice is already sounding familiar. It belongs to a man who used to attend our church many years ago. I haven't actually seen him since my grown kids were in high school. We have spoken on the phone a few times since then. Each of those occurrences left me thinking that the man is buried in his problems and will probably never get better.

"Hi," I reply, "how can I help you?" I know my voice is tense. I don't want to be bothered and I'm sure he can tell. I feel guilty, but it is inconvenient. (I'd rather not admit that attitude.) Besides, the last time or two we talked, I'm not even sure the guy was sober.

"I'm actually getting my life together," he said. "I am being treated for PTSD because of Viet Nam and I'm better than I have been in many, many years. I have been giving it some thought and I can think of two people right now that I need to reconcile with. You're one of them."

A voice from the past. I relax, grateful for this turn in the conversation. I tell him truthfully that he owes me no apology. I invite him back to church because he says he has tried a few and wants to attend again. He seems relieved, promises to see me and says goodbye.

I have had to make many similar calls over the years. They have left me feeling joyful and relieved. I hope it did the same for him.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Seventh Day

My friend Ox told me something very interesting the other day. Ox works on Harriers (you know, those jets that take off and land pretty much vertically). Well, Ox said that every 30 engine hours they have to run those jet turbines through a stress test. He said that metal fatigue is a common problem. I asked him how fast those things turn and he said it's about 20,000 r.p.m. at maximum power and you can add to that the speed (400-500 m.p.h.) they are moving through the air. I guess those things need a "Sabbath" after a work week of only 30 hours!

Here's the deal. Those turbines are pipsqueaks compared to some pastors I know. 20,000 revs is a slow idle for some of those "revs." On top of that, they almost never slow down long enough for a health checkup. My pastor friend Manolo from the Dominican has a huge problem with taking on too much and many of his friends are concerned about him. I was down there earlier this month and one of our little team convinced Manolo to go to the beach with us. Manolo grew up next to some of the most beautiful ocean front I've ever seen, but somehow he had felt it was inappropriate to go after he became a pastor -- over 25 years ago! I snapped his picture in shorts
even though he still had his phone glued to his ear.

Manolo got out into the water that afternoon, visibly relaxed and started cracking jokes. I'm certain it wasn't enough to handle all his "metal fatigue," but it was a start and he's coming here soon to stay for several weeks. Hopefully he'll be able to pass a stress test.

I'm writing about this because it's Saturday (to be published tomorrow) and the Seventh Day of this blog. I'm glad the first week is behind me. I am learning A LOT!

AND I slept in this morning. This "Sabbath" thing that God started -- I like it!