Saturday, November 29, 2008

Saturday Reruns 2

I told you last week that I would take Saturday off for a bit of creative rest. Since I write this on Friday, I wanted you to see this picture that Becki took of me in Boston just yesterday. It will make you glad I chose a rerun...
Entitled, "A Face In The Crowd," I originally posted this on November 1 of this year.

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, November 28, 2008

It's A Holly, Jolly Christmas

Today is an important one to our family. Long before Black Friday was called "Black Friday," this was the day the Norris family pulled boxes of decorations from the garage and "dressed" our house for Christmas.

I came to cherish these few hours each year. As a pastor, I have spent much of my life bucking tradition. Family Christmas decorating has been a glowing exception for me.

Cathy's mom has sold Avon since the year after Columbus landed. Okay, it was a couple of years later, but Joyce started presenting us with special Christmas tree ornaments early in our marriage. When we started a family, we received ornaments for each child. Sometimes they came with our child's name already engraved, but usually my organized wife neatly printed the name and year on the back of the ornament with a permanent marker pen.

As the years flew by, each child developed a collection of ornaments and all got to hang their own on the tree. Meanwhile, a large pan of fresh, hot wassail would be waiting on the stove. Sometimes we even had a fire crackling in a fireplace. The other ambiance enhancement was always Christmas music.

To this day, I think the whole family dislikes (despises, hates, is disgusted by -- you get the picture) the Burl Ives rendition of "Holly, Jolly Christmas." Now I'm certain (?) we all deeply respected Mr. Ives as an actor and musician, but that song? Well, let's just say we would all start singing it in a most obnoxious way and end up in fits of laughter.

In recent years, decorating is back down to where it started -- Cathy and me. It takes a bit longer, still includes wassail and (sometimes) Ives, and usually brings me happy tears as I remember. Those memories are some of our most precious treasures.

On this Black Friday, Cathy and I will laugh, dance and play with Molly. The house can wait!

How will you spend today?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm Thankful

I begin my long list today with the most recent and move back in time.

I am thankful for the following...
  • I got to watch our granddaughter Molly make cookies with her Grammy yesterday.
  • Trying to take an afternoon nap yesterday, I was constantly interrupted by the sound of contagious laughter. Cathy and our daughter Becki were in stitches as they visited Cake Wrecks.
  • Our son Sean took a huge step of faith and took a full load of college science courses (he already has a degree in Theatre) because he wants to get into medical school. He still maintains a full-time job. All this, while his wife Betsy is in a tough PhD program in psychology AND she works, too. We are proud of them and thankful for their hard work.
  • Our daughter Beth, whom most of you know through her blog brings us great joy. We are thankful for her husband, The Engineer, and our grandkids you know as Chickie and Zoodle.
  • Beth's twin sister Becki balances life as a busy mommy to Molly, wife to Donal, and middle/high school science teacher.
  • I am grateful particularly that each of our children married wonderful mates who care for them and show them unconditional love. It would be hard for a dad to want more for his kids.
  • I am blessed with a wonderful family history, having been taught love, respect and hard work from parents who lived their faith daily. Dad went to heaven in 1990, but mom is now 82 and still quite healthy. She inspires me.
  • Cathy's folks, Bob and Joyce, are like another set of parents to me. I am forever grateful that I got to meet, love and marry a daughter they raised. I wish you all could know them.
  • My church family, Stone Ridge Church, of Yuma, Arizona, is vibrant, alive and real. Walking the faith journey with them is one of life's highest privileges.
  • My extended church family, made up of scores of churches and thousands of believers in the Dominican Republic, keep teaching me by example what it means to Love Jesus Passionately.
  • Our nation, with all its faults, is a place made free through the blood of many thousands who saw a cause worth living for. Those who died did so, not at the whim of a raging despot, but with a choice to protect our freedom.
I have saved the best for last. This is the 37th Thanksgiving I have shared with my bride. In so many ways, it seems like yesterday that we were just starting out. I have been blessed with God's very best by being able to marry Cathy. Thank you, darlin', for being you.

Next spring marks 49 years since the day I went forward in a church service and said to Brother Stirling, "I want to dedicate my life to the Lord." There's no way an eight-year-old boy can understand those words. However, by His grace, He began to change me from the inside out. He must receive the ultimate thanks from me this day for my entire life is the result of His blessing. His abiding presence, His constant forgiveness paid for by the sacrifice of His Son, and His unconditional love mean more to me each year. Thank You, Abba!

To you, who have joined me on this journey, thank you for your encouragement and sharpening. I will not meet many of you in person, but I am grateful for you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I Believe In Yesterday

To my best recollection, I was a kid growing up in New Mexico when I first heard (I think it was) a TV weatherman refer to Thanksgiving as "Turkey Day." At the time, about 45 years ago, the term was a cute novelty. Now, to many people, it has become the de facto title of the 4th Thursday in November.

I find that a matter of great concern. Like many of you, I grew up celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends. The day included great -- and abundant -- food, along with football, recreation and rest. One thing was clear, however. This was a day to give thanks for the bounty and the freedoms we enjoy in this Land called the United States of America. I'm not sure exactly when we started it, but each year our gathering included individual expressions of gratitude by each person present before we sat down to eat.

Anecdotal evidence would indicate to me that, for many people in this country, tomorrow is far more about sleeping in, gorging with rich food, watching the traditional ball games and generally partying. What will be absent is any expression of thanks to anyone. One reason I'm inclined to think that we have developed an attitude of ingratitude is the way people tend to treat each other.

In my city, it's not the trees that change colors in the fall months. It's the license plates. While "snowbirds" flock to Yuma for the winter and bring millions into the local economy, many of them are arrogant, rude and downright mean to the service help in restaurants and stores. Having watched the meekness of the older generation for much of my life, I'm still shocked at the "you owe me" attitude a number of our current winter visitors bring with them.

"Road Rage" is a second indicator. Those two words have come to strike terror into the hearts of many drivers. A lesser form of this selfishness exists, though, at a much more pervasive level. It seems that many of us (notice that I include me here) get behind the wheel with a sense of entitlement that we -- AND NOBODY ELSE -- deserve to be at the front of every line of cars at every traffic signal. "Ain't never gonna break my stride; Nobody's gonna slow me down..." I'm actually working on this one. I find myself at times disgusted with my own attitude when I'm driving.

Here's one that broke my heart. I know a guy who manages at a chain restaurant in a nice area of Southern California. He said that the worst shift to staff every week is the one serving the crowd who just got out of church. My friend -- a Christian who has been in full-time ministry -- said that people come out of church with their "Jesus Rocks" tee shirts on and yet they are the most self-centered, rude and stingy crowd his team serves all week. He finds himself embarrassed to be named in the same "family."

It seems that we are a spoiled, arrogant, selfish nation of people who have forgotten to be grateful for the privileges we enjoy. Soooo, eat your turkey, converse with your family, take your nap, even prepare for "Black Friday." But, please, pause to be thankful.

That's what I want to do. In fact, let's start today. As we work our way through the mad rush of people who, like us, are preparing for the holiday, take a moment to be kind. And say "thank you" to those who are doing their jobs and trying to serve us. Many people may find our attitude today is more gratifying than feast they will eat tomorrow.

In the morning, I'll share with you a bit of my gratitude list. I'm sure that you'll be thinking about yours.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Arriving On A Jet Plane

Let me begin with the postscript. I often title these posts after famous songs. I switched this one around to fit, but something in me gets sorta choked up every time I hear "Leaving On A Jet Plane," written by John Denver and made famous in the sixties by Peter, Paul and Mary. "Don't know when I'll be back again. Oh, babe, I hate to go..."

Fortunately, there's another side to these sagas and that's what we saw yesterday. Planes were filled with people on their way to see loved ones for the holiday. Upon arriving in Providence, we had a few minutes to wait before we left the airport. In that time, Cathy and I got to watch the beauty and the drama as families greeted each other.

One young mom arrived with her little boy -- a toddler with not-quite-secure steps. He held his mother's hand, fell, and got back up unscathed. Looking just past them, we saw grandma, down on her haunches with arms outstretched. Her excited smile said it all! His return "who is this lady?" look told us she would need to crank up the charm to win the little guy over. No doubt they're "best buds" by now.

We saw another young mom and her beautiful little girl waiting for someone and never got to observe that reunion. But about the same time, we saw a young couple greet what looked like the young man's grandparents. Cathy noticed that his wife looked like she could deliver her baby any minute. Happy arrivals to come!

I could turn this into a serious post about some of what I believe heaven will be like, but I choose not to. Suffice it to say that I think these earthly homecomings are just shadows of the real deal God has planned for His own family.

We have celebrated numerous arrival moments over the years. Some stick out. Like the time my dad was celebrating his retirement from a career of making cars run smooth. He was that honest mechanic that people came to from many miles away.

My mom had told him that some people were coming over for a big get-together after Sunday church services. A number of folks came and set it up while he was at church. What he didn't know was that our son Sean -- 13 at the time -- and I were flying in for the occasion. We intentionally stood back out of his view and grinned as dad greeted each person and exhuberantly thanked them for coming. Suddenly he looked up and there we were. We hadn't seen him in a long time and he was overwhelmed. What a great time!

Do you have a favorite experience you would like to share? Sound off!

My current favorite was yesterday, when Book Girl Molly greeted us as we arrived at her house. She sees us all the time on a webcam, but she was bewildered by our presence.

For about a minute. Now Grammy and Sampa are her best friends.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Never On A Monday

I heard the saying from a pastor who mentored me when I was a young guy: "Never resign on a Monday."

The logical person would ask why. The answer is fairly simple. While it's not true that pastors only work on Sunday, it is true that we expend a great amount of emotional energy on that day. It's not just the focus required to preach, but also the extreme interaction with those we have responsibility to care for.

A couple of weeks ago, between services one of our leaders came up to me with some people I had never met. The man introduced himself, his son and his sister. He proceeded to tell me that he wants to get his life back together. Then, breaking into sobs, he went on to explain that his wife had taken her own life last month. I stood and held him as he wept openly.

Yesterday, it included brief interactions with a young couple who just went through a miscarriage, a missionary leader from another country, a couple who is learning to pray about money decisions, and a little girl who was beaming because she had just been baptized.

My tendency is to take all those things in stride while they are happening, then feel like a squeezed-out sponge once it's over. No wonder the Gospels give such vivid pictures of Jesus departing to solitary places (i.e. Mark 1:35).

The argument goes like this... Either Sunday was an incredible day and an emotional high, in which case Monday becomes such a letdown that you don't want to go on. Or Sunday was a horrible day of missteps and problems that leave you feeling you would rather do anything else other than pastoring.

Either way, it's a bad idea to resign on Monday. Tuesday you'll surely be ready to hang on.

What causes you to want to self-impose a pink slip?

p.s. I'm not resigning today. It's a far better idea for Cathy and me to go to Boston and spend Thanksgiving with family.

AND I get to dance with my two-year-old granddaughter! Now that's a job I'll keep!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Passing The Baton

On Friday, Cathy and I attended a Change of Command ceremony in which a Marine officer took command of a Harrier Squadron. We have attended these before, but this one was extra special because both the old Commanding Officer and the new one attend our church.

The ceremony is full of meaning and most of it is communicated by actions rather than words. It's the middle that I find the most moving. At a set time, the senior enlisted man -- the Sargeant Major -- marches out to the Color Guard and retrieves the official Squadron Colors. He then carries the Colors to the current Commanding Officer. The C.O. receives the Colors, turns and passes them to the new commander. At that moment, the new C.O. receives the full responsibility for the unit and takes command.

I get chills every time I watch that part of the ceremony. Over the years, I have come to know some of these guys and I am deeply moved by the weight they carry. Often, they lead their squadrons to the field of battle, knowing that some of them might not return. It isn't a job for the fainthearted, but leadership never is.

You see, I have discovered that life is all about preparing those coming up behind us. Whether we are training someone at work, teaching one of our kids how to drive, or trying to help Chickie learn to poop in the pot, we should always be passing a baton. It may take every creative molecule in our being and patience beyond words, but it's a key part of life. One at which we dare not fail.

What is your current "baton passing" challenge?