The main event

husband-wife-fightingA few days ago I promised to write about my favorite fighting couple, my downstairs neighbors when I moved into my first apartment in Middletown, NJ. I still remember the name on their mailbox: Barlog. The name always reminded me of the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings, and Gandalf’s bold stand to protect the fellowship of the ring when he shouted, “You shall not pass!” But I digress.

I was twenty-one years old, had just graduated from college, and began my first job at Bell Labs in West Long Branch, NJ, an overflow site from their much larger but not large enough Holmdel location. The relocation office helped me find a small, affordable apartment just a few miles away, and I moved in to begin my young adult life.

These were the only neighbors I actually met there. They were nice enough at first. But the paper-thin walls and floors of the apartment soon revealed another side. They absolutely, positively hated each other. Now, if I stepped a little too heavily in my living room, they would pound a broom handle on the ceiling to let me know I was too noisy However, when the bell rung and they starting going at it, I could clearly hear every insult and obscenity they would fling at each other. I could also hear the sound of plates and pots and pans being thrown when the conflict escalated.

The one day that sticks in my mind was a fifteen-round main event one Saturday. It started early. I was up anyway, and went out for a run. When I returned an hour later from a longer than usual run, the arguing was still going on. Louder and louder, dish after dish, the back door flew open, slammed shut and the husband roared off in his car, and his wife stood outside screaming at him to never, ever return. Inside, she wailed and lamented at her plight. But only for a few moments. Just like that, his car roared back back around the corner, he stormed back into the house, slammed the door again, and they picked up right where they had left off. I left, probably to go practice trumpet at church or something. When I returned, it was quiet. Maybe they were exhausted. Maybe a TKO. I never found out.

I didn’t fulfill my year long lease there. I found another place to rent in Neptune with a friend of mind from church. I don’t miss them but I’ll never forget this couple who certainly were committed to a violent and abusive marriage.

Life after death

chu-tai-121706Several months ago I wrote about our preschool’s last graduation as we closed the door on that part of our church’s ministry. Since then, closing that door has been followed by a flood of new opportunities. As soon as we laid that program to rest, new ministries immediately sprouted and began to grow.

A team of members, both new and old spent weeks cleaning out many years of preschool furniture, toys, craft supplies and teaching materials. A new wall, buffed floors and a fresh coat of paint spawned new ministry ideas.

One area was set aside for youth ministry. Soon after, two young adults took a step of faith and offered to lead our youth ministry, which had lay dormant for a couple of years. They now have more than a dozen meeting each week, not just in our facility, but out serving in the community.

Another area was set aside for our Operation Barnabas chapter, ministering to veterans and families of military in our area. The harvest field of retired vets is plentiful in our area. A place to connect with other vets will also provide a way to connect with the local church and other services that they need.

Yet another area was set aside for our preschool Sunday School class, which is suddenly being populated with little people as the birth rate rises in our congregation and community. Two first-time teachers stepped up to lead this ministry.

Both the girl scout and boy scouts have asked to use our space, another connection with our community, and more importantly, the homes immediately around us.

The space we now have available can be used for disaster relief. We now have space usable as a secondary shelter when the primary shelters close down.

We recently got involved with helping out homeless students at our high schools. We now have some space available to expand our ministry to those families.

Over the past few years, we did everything we could to keep our school open. In hindsight, we were simply providing hospice care for that part of our ministry. From scripture, we should have known that unless a seed is planted in the ground, it remains just that. But when it is buried, it grows into something new and much more than it was before. We should have known that death leads to resurrection, not just on Easter morning, but in the life of the church and her saints.

Our most recent experience in church revitalization happened when we laid an old ministry to rest and watched as God breathed new life into that void.

And then I hung up on her.

14ce545acaIt didn’t happen recently. It happened about ten years ago. I don’t remember what the issue was. I don’t know what I did or what I said. But I believe it is the only time I have ever hung up on someone. BTW, we had a landline, a phone on the wall, attached by a coiled cord, that could be “hung up.”

She was a member of our church and she was hot. I honestly don’t remember what I had said or done, but I hit a nerve. From the moment I said, “Hello,” she launched into a tirade of verbal attacks that allowed me very few chances to respond. She was angry, offended and irate. Her words were pointed, vicious, and bitter.

In vain, I tried to interject, “Can we talk about this sometime when you aren’t as upset?” In response she just loaded a new clip and let loose with a fresh round of verbal artillery.

At one point, I actually put down the phone on the kitchen table and walked away. When I returned five minutes later, the onslaught had not stopped. She had no idea that I had left and returned. It didn’t matter. I didn’t even need to be there.

Finally, I said, “I’m going to hang up.” The torrent of words did not abate, not even for the briefest of moments.

And then I hung up on her.

I don’t think we ever had another conversation, if you could call it that. But I know I never heard anything like it before or since. Not during a highly contested election. Not from a couple of boxers facing off at the weigh in. Not from the non-stop, dish-throwing, fat, ugly, arguing couple who lived in the apartment below me in New Jersey. (I promise I’ll tell that story soon.)

And I don’t think I’ve ever hung up on anyone else, either.

 

What do I not see?

PieFinally the new season of network TV has begun, and we got to watch the first episode of the second season of “Bull” last night, “School for Scandal.” How will Dr. Bull figure out a way to convict a woman who has murdered her husband when everything points to justifiable self-defense? (Spoiler alert if you keep reading.) Continue reading

Sola fide: Faith alone

Transcription of Sunday, September 24, 2017 sermon. 

Sept 24 cover pic

It sounded like a really good deal. I could get the first month for free. No other obligation. Why not give it a try? I gave them my name and mailing address. Then they wanted my credit card number. Why do they want my credit card number? I thought the first month was free. Well the product is free, but you have to pay for the shipping. They also want to change my credit card every month after that when I forget to call them and tell them that and tell them I don’t want to receive this every month. I can see by the looks on your faces that you have been through this process yourselves. Continue reading

Bang!

andrew-ponochovnyi-100887Bang!

Well, it was actually more like a “pop.” But it worked. I popped a plastic shopping bag filled with air and got the attention of the forty-some children who writhed on the floor at Good News Club today.

The lesson was on creation. I wonder how many of them had heard that the world began with a “bang” some billions of years ago? I wonder how many of them had heard the biblical account of creation? Some of them worshiped weekly with the families at churches in our community. Some have never been. As I taught a lesson I’ve read, studied, heard and discussed many times in my own lifetime, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to hear it for the first time — as a child or an adult.

What would they take home from this? What would stick in their minds? I know from experience that it’s totally unpredictable. Some might marvel at the creative power of God’s voice. It all happened when he spoke, “Let there be…” Others might grab onto God’s evaluation of his work: “It was good.” I hope that some were captivated by their personal connection to the creation. After all, we too were knitted together in our mother’s womb, and are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13,14).

Since I am so familiar with the story, I think I wrongly assume that everyone is. Even in the church, I believe many have forgotten their Creator, His creation, and their own place in that creation. Perhaps if we talked more about that, we would place greater value on the lives of other created people. Like people who look different than us. Or those who need someone to take care of them. Or those who are crying for help, for a chance, or for love.

The biblical account of creation has much to say to a world where climate change, racism and human lives are headline news. We were created to take care of this world and take care of each other. Science might have a lot of answers, but it doesn’t bring that message. Theology may not have all the answers, but it drives home that point. If this world is worth dying for, then it must be pretty important to God. You must be pretty important to God.

If we brought that to the table, maybe we would get somewhere when we talked about global warming, hunger and poverty, war and human rights, fair trade and economic justice, and war and peace.

Let life unfold

tiny-book-step-1In a piece Brandon Evans wrote about riding out Hurricane Irma, he shared this recommendation: “Rather than trying to control every outcome or obsess about what might happen, just let life actually unfold.”

It’s hard to do that. We’re swept along by schedules and deadlines, we’re super-sensitive to what people are thinking and might say, we have a specific outcome in mind, and we engineer our time and energy to get there. We are scared to death by media-driven hypochondria, and how every little variation in life will hurt your pocketbook, affect your family’s health, and leave you vulnerable to imminent doom. Social media pictures of happy people doing exciting things in exotic places haunt us with the possibility that life has left us behind.

Actually, we have very little control over the weather, earthquakes, what other people say and do, wars and the economy, disease and death and doom. Think about how much happens in your life without your permission, approval or initiative. Much of the time your foot’s not on the accelerator or the brake or the steering wheel. You’re just buckled in for the ride.

What do we control? We can work hard and do a good job. We can take time to rest and let our bodies regenerate. We can talk and listen and get to know the people around us. We can embrace the journey or the day even if it doesn’t go the way we planned or we didn’t get anything done that we wanted to. We can get to know the One who does have a handle on time, the world and life.

Think about that for a moment. When Jesus was here, he wasn’t especially concerned about the weather. He soundly slept through a potentially life-threatening storm. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry, having time for prayer, conversation, worship and rest. He wasn’t concerned about politics or politicians. He knew they couldn’t do anything unless he let them. The demonic didn’t creep him out. Neither did disease. Or death.

As life unfolds, a good prayer to keep handy might be, “Lord, help me learn from this experience.” It may not be what you expected or wanted. Or, it might be an unexpected surprise. It might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Or it might be the best advice you ever got.

When things happen, take a moment, take a breath, take another look. Take stock of your feelings, your reaction, and what, if anything, you need to do. Once in a while, just let life unfold.

It’s not the end of the world.

william-bossen-121842

Photo by William Bossen on Unsplash

Oops.

Today is not the end of the world, as David Meade has been saying. What he meant to say is that September 23 would be the beginning of catastrophic events to occur when Planet X passes by the earth. Whatever.

Here’s my question. Why do people choose to listen to doomsayers like David Meade, but completely ignore Jesus and what he had to say? He spoke of the end times and what that would look like, and most simply dismiss his words. Anyone else can make a prediction of the world’s end and get a headline in the Washington Post or Fox news. The media rarely shares Christ’s words with us.  Continue reading

Listening in on an interview

Photo by Seemi Samuel on UnsplashAfter making a couple of hospital visits at Mayo Hospital in Jacksonville, I stopped at a Starbucks on my way home. Got my latte, found an empty table, and checked out the room. Being right off I-95, it was busy, mostly people passing through I would imagine.

A slender, twenty-something young man sat next to me at another table. Polo, khakis, decent shoes, but no beverage. A few minutes later another gentleman walked into the store, carrying a zippered briefcase, polo, khakis, athletic shoes, carrying a bit more weight. He shook hands with the young man, excused himself to the restroom for a moment, and then returned, also no beverage.

I thought to myself, “I’ll bet this is an interview.” Cool. I’m going to eavesdrop on their conversation and take notes. Latte, clerical shirt, phone out, writing in my journal — perfect cover.

First observation: both were fast-talkers. Really fast-talkers. Nerves? Maybe. But they never relaxed. They kept up the frantic paced conversation for the next twenty minutes. Good thing they didn’t order any caffeine.

I was right. Job interview. First question, “So are you looking for full-time, part-time…” First answer, “I just need a job.”

“So tell me about you.”

21 years old, between jobs, girl friend, did a little life-insurance sales, didn’t work out. Took care of grandfather. Took a few college classes. Played a little football in college. Wide receiver and defensive end.

That was their common ground. The interviewer had played football, too, till he broke his hand. He revealed a little more about himself. A few years in the military. Three college degrees, but didn’t use any of them. Thirty-eight years old. Didn’t know anything about finance until he got into this business. “I was a police officer when I started. But I told them I would work harder than anyone else.”

That’s a lot of education and experience packed into just a few years.

He continued. “I’m not a salesman. My goal is to help people be better than they were when I met them. I let them make the decision. If they don’t want to do this for their family, I don’t care.”

He went on, “I’m looking for someone to manage people. Most life insurance companies…” So that’s the job: selling life insurance. “Most life insurance companies lie, rip you off, take your money. Ours is different. We have 700 agents in our office. On the average the people in our office make $175,000 a year.”

Impressive. But now I think I know where this is going.

He went on, hardly taking a breath, as if his plane were boarding in five minutes. “After thirty days you’ll have 10-15 people on your team. Another thirty days, you’ll have 30-40. Hardest thing you’ll ever do. I’ve been at this for eleven years. You come up to our office twice a week for training. Hey, I’m OK teaching you, even if I don’t make any money. I’d rather make less and do the right thing. What’s your name, again?”

After an exchange of names for the first time in the conversation, the interviewer continued. “You just make sure you’re helping people and training them. Two years from now I can see you making $100,000.”

All along, the interviewee has been affirming that he can do this. He already has some of the licenses. He’s willing to learn. At this point he breaks in, “What’s the name of the company?”

First mention of the company. “Primerica. Biggest insurance company in America. Biggest investment firm, too.” Note to self: fact check later. “We do car insurance, home insurance, long term care insurance. Whatever people need.”

My coffee was gone, I had filled two pages with notes, and I was exhausted just sitting there listening to the pitch. Time to head home. I hope things work out for the young man.

When I returned home, I checked out Primerica. It is a big multilevel marketing insurance company, that appears to be a descendant or reincarnation of the 1980’s buy-term-invest-the-difference A. L. Williams firm. Online reviews of Primerica include the typical range of “best company ever” to “high-pressure, lying, cheating, rip-off artists.”

No judgment from me. Just listening and learning, reflecting and writing. I wonder who’s eavesdropped on any of my coffee-shop conversations?