Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Real Fake Christmas

I have done something traitorous. I am ashamed. And now I'm going to justify it.

I bought an artificial Christmas tree.

I know, I know, lots of people have fake trees. It's not a sin; it's a lifestyle choice. That is, unless you were born and raised in the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, also known as Indiana County, Pennsylvania. That's Indiana--the hometown of Jimmy Stewart, whose father owned Stewart's Hardware, where they never, EVER sold fake Christmas trees. Indiana, which could have been used as a set for Bedford Falls--a town steeped in Americana and decorated by Currier and Ives. No, in my hometown, trees of plastic and wire are not only frowned upon, they are despised and rejected as invaders of the true spirit of the season and killers of the local economy.

And it's not like we live in a place where it's hard to get a real tree. I suppose if you lived in Las Vegas, it would be easy to justify a fake tree. Heck, nothing is real in places like that. They even have fake Santas.

But Maryland has trees. There are tree farms not more than 15 minutes from my house. But we're not going there this year. Our tree was delivered by UPS. In a box. I ordered it online. From Sears.

So why did I do it? Why did I forsake my heritage and ignore the wishes of my sentimental oldest son and wife?

It's simple. I wanted to enjoy Christmas more.

Once upon a time, Karen and I were dreamers and idealists. We bundled the boys in thick coats and trudged out to the tree farm with a bow saw and high hopes. We walked over the hills and valleys, through the snow, to find "the perfect tree." Usually, what we got instead was complaining children, cold feet, snowballs down the back, fights, arguments, and an afternoon of misery. Ah, the memories!

So we started buying the tree from the boy scouts on the corner. The boys were off the hook now, but Dad wasn't. It was up to me to get the thing trimmed up, in the door, into the stand, straightened, and well lit. It took hours, and caused me to use words I shouldn't use, synonyms for "Hey, why are you guys sitting around drinking hot cider while I'm torturing my fingers and breaking my back?" It caused me to lose sleep because it took till 1:00am, and because on at least one occasion it crashed to the floor in the middle of the night. It left needles everywhere, it never fit right in the corner, and it was ugly by the time January rolled around. Did I mention we often forgot to water it?

So this year Christmas is coming from a box. It will be straight. It will be well lit. It will fit in the corner. It will take about 1/5 the time, leaving me time to enjoy my hot cider.

And it will smell like plastic.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Great Conspiracy

Do you ever feel like the world is conspired against you?

A few weeks ago, one of the headlights on my car was burned out. Now, I'm about as handy as a foot, and auto mechanics is a language I understand as well as Chinese. But I've replaced bulbs before, so it was going to be no big deal. I even had an extra bulb in my workshop from the two-pack I bought last year.

I popped open the hood, unscrewed the bulb, and was ready to put the new one in when I realized my new bulb was slightly different. And I do mean slightly. There was one little extra tab that made it impossible to fit it in. So I checked the number on the old bulb, realized I needed an exact match, and drove off to Auto Zone to get it.

I returned home, plugged in the new bulb, and then spent about 15 frustrating minutes trying to reenter the bulb plate into the back of the fixture. You have to have it just right (you can't see it) before it will screw back on. Finally, I got it inserted and screwed on. I turned on the headlight to check it. And discovered I had replaced the wrong one. I had replaced the high beam instead of the regular beam.

Okay, I'm an idiot. But I discovered the extra bulb that didn't work before was actually for the regular headlight. So I didn't have to go back to the store. I screwed in the new bulb, got the fixture back in place (only five minutes this time), and was finished.

Having accomplished such a manly task, I pushed my luck. The brake light in our van has been on. I thought I'd check the brake fluid. I popped the hood, and located every reservoir of liquid except the brake fluid. I took the manual out of the glove box, found the engine diagram and there it was, buried in the back, unmarked. I unscrewed the cap to see if it was empty. It wasn't. But as I went to screw the cap back on, it slipped out of my fingers. I heard it drop, make several mysterious pinging noises, and then....silence.

"No way!" I said, though I was thinking of some other words I've heard Karen use when she's mad at me.

I crawled under the van. Surely it was on the ground? No, it was stuck somewhere inside the engine.

Now it was getting dark, and we had plans to go out. But I had effectively rendered our van undrivable, and I had a full day at church tomorrow and we needed the van. I was officially an idiot.

I ran inside to get a flashlight. In our house, flashlights disappear more quickly than milk and cereal. I couldn't find one. So I got in my other car and drove to our local hardware store. I nearly ran over the owner as she walked to her car, having just turned over the "closed" sign. I raced to CVS, where I found the flashlight aisle, which happened to be devoid of all flashlights. Unbelievable. I couldn't stop now. I got back in the car and headed the other direction, towards Walmart. I decided to check at Sheetz instead. Sure enough, they had nice little flashlights and they weren't terribly overpriced. I bought three, and paid $79 for a lifetime warranty against losing them.

I returned home. It was now dark. I was frustrated and embarrassed. What started out as a simple task that should have taken ten minutes and the brain of a pea had turned into a two-hour production for a pea-brain.

And I was hearing voices. You know the ones I mean--the ones that assail your weaknesses. How can I make this so difficult? Why am I so inept? Why can I not fix anything without a huge hassle? Why is the world conspired against me?

I imagined the call I would have to make. "AAA? Yes, I dropped my brake fluid cap inside my engine. What? You need to take my entire car apart? $1500 plus labor? Okay. What's that? Yes, I know I'm a mechanical weanie..."

I peered inside the engine with my flashlight (No kidding -- I almost dropped it). Nothing. I got down on my hands and knees. Yes, to pray, but also to look under the van. I crawled around for a few minutes, ran my hand under every nook and cranny, pleading for mercy.

Finally, at that moment, I felt something. The cat? No, the cap. I grabbed it. I climbed out and very carefully screwed it back on. The conquering hero. The relieved idiot.

I wondered later, Is the world conspired against me? Sometimes it feels that way, doesn't it? Little things turn into big things, and our weaknesses are attacked in ways that feel supernatural. The man who fears public speaking is put on the spot at the meeting. The woman who worries about her weight has a job interview with a fitness queen. The unathletic teenage girl is placed on the gym team with the super-competitive boys. The child who fears embarrassment spills his milk on his shorts. The man who can't fix anything renders his van useless by unscrewing a cap.

The world finds ways to make us feel small, to pick on us, to drop us into the engine, just before dark, and make us want to disappear.

The world is conspired against us. But it's no match for Jesus. He knows our weaknesses, and he really doesn't mind them at all. They are just opportunities for him to show us how much he loves us. He takes us by the hand. He fixes what we've broken. He doesn't embarrass us or demean us. He just says, "Hey, I've got this one. No big deal. Trust me. All will be well, child. Light bulbs replaced, small battles conquered, and hopes laid for greater things."

"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Grown Men and a Giant Ball

It doesn't take much to entertain boys.

I remember a camping trip we took to the Outer Banks about six years ago. The boys set up a squirrel trap. It was a plastic box, with a stick attached to a string holding it up. They laid a path of peanuts to the box. They sat on the step of the camper and watched as a squirrel began grabbing the peanuts, breaking them open, and eating them. They giggled and laughed for hours, their faces alive with their potential conquest, which never quite happened.

It doesn't take much to entertain boys.

This past weekend Tim and I went on the Mountain View Men's Retreat. It was one of those "get away and be guys" type of things, focused on becoming men of God. There were about 80 of us there, and it was a lot of fun. The food was good. The accommodations were nice. The speakers and music were challenging.

But the highlight was the giant ball.

We had a series of challenges on Saturday afternoon, a little competition to get the blood flowing. We broke into eight teams, and played a series of four games. Our team was called Happy Hour on Everest (long story). After two semi-sedate indoor games, the teams moved out into the field for a game known simply as "Push the Ball." (Actually, we could have come up with some better names, but it was a church retreat). It involved a 5' inflated ball with a canvas cover, some cones, and nothing else.

Two teams at a time sent three players onto the field. The players poised at opposite ends of the field while the giant ball was placed in the center. When the command was given, the players charged the ball and attempted to push it across the other team's goal line.

We are men. We like simplicity.

We all watched as the first two teams gave their all for the glory of victory. The fast ones raced to get to the ball first, some launching their bodies at it like meteors. One young man went completely airborne, much to his delight and to the delight of the crowd. The big ones got behind the ball and stood their ground, pushing with all their might. It was like watching rhinos play soccer. Some matches went quickly; others looked more like 15-round heavyweight fights. Men were rolled over, pushed to the ground, trampled, exhausted, nearly decapitated. They risked life and limb and paralysis to move the ball. They screamed and groaned and laughed and cried. I watched. Discretion is the better part of valor.

It was spectacular. Ask any man what he remembers about the weekend, and he'll tell you. "The Giant Ball."

So last week, my boys, for the first time in years, set up the squirrel trap in the front yard. They brought the string in through the kitchen window and laid a path of peanut butter around the box. The next day, Tim and I were standing in the kitchen and noticed a squirrel in the yard. We pulled the string. And for a few glorious seconds, we had one. It raced around under the box like, I don't know, a crazy squirrel. We laughed hysterically and giggled and danced.

No, it doesn't take much to entertain boys.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

So it begins

Yesterday at 11:57am, I handed over the envelope and asked the mail clerk to add postage. Enclosed were an application, transcript, reference letter, essays, and a check. Destination? Admissions Office. Grove City College. 100 Campus Drive. Grove City. PA. 16127. Since with the application goes the understanding that, if accepted, he is agreeing to an "early decision," there is no turning back.

Jonathan will soon be leaving for college.

I had some mixed feelings about sending the letter. On one hand, it's a huge relief. The college search can be overwhelming. We've talked about it for a year, but done little about it. Checked out some websites. Put all the mail in one big box. A few weeks ago, Jon, Tim and I made a road trip to Grove City (Karen's and my Alma Mater). We have a nephew there, and a good friend from church. It was our only college visit. Both boys loved it. We intended to visit a few others, but never did. Applying for early decision simplifies life.

On the other hand, there are questions. Did we do enough research? Is this really the right place? How will we pay for it? Can I survive with my son five hours away?

The first three questions just require peace, pragmatism and prayer. The last one requires more of me than I can give just yet. I'm not ready to sort through the emotions associated with my first child leaving for college. I'm not ready to think about him turning 18, throwing his last pitch of high school baseball, or walking across the stage in a cap and gown. On top of that, the thought of Tim being a senior next year is too much for me. I'm going to ignore those concepts for now--if I don't think about them maybe they aren't real--and deal with the present. Basketball tryouts are tonight. There's a roast in the crock pot. We have youth group on Sunday. There's a boatload of laundry to do, and most of it belongs to Jon and Tim.

I still have a few months to wrestle with it all, and write more blogs about it, I suppose. I just need some more time.

For now, the letter is in the mail. Heck, it's probably arriving today, in the very office where we had the admissions interview. I wonder what they'll think of my son?

I wonder if they'll realize how much he's loved, and how hard it was to send that letter?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Celebrating Ten Years at the Landon House

This Monday we will officially inhabit the new offices of Mountain View Community Church at 8330 Fingerboard Road. I am incredibly excited. The offices are beautiful. It smells like new carpet. The furniture is shiny and clean. It's a dream come true.

For the past ten years, we have held our offices in the historic Landon House, a 250 year-old building with lots of history, character... and problems. It was exciting at first. I had a huge office, with a balcony. I had my name on the door and space of my own to study and pray. For Guy, who had been working out of his basement since planting the church three years earlier, it seemed like we'd arrived.

But over the years, we got weary of the place. It was just too hard to work there sometimes. The mice were into everything. The heat never worked right -- some days it would be 50 degrees; others it would be 100. The power would go out frequently, especially in the early days, when were were testing the capacity of the old building's electrical circuitry. We went years without high speed internet, and my phone never worked. Strangers were always coming and going, looking for the owner or just walking through looking for ghosts. Lots of other tenants came and left--but we stayed. We waited. We dreamed. We knew our time was coming. And there was a Panera only a few miles away.

Well, we made it! Today I packed my last box, wiped the mouse droppings from my desk, and said goodbye to the old place. In honor of the past 10 years, here are a couple lists about our experiences at 3401 Urbana Pike, home of the Haunted Landon House.

Top 10 Things I Won't Miss About the Landon House
10. Phone lines with clarity resembling undersea telegraph lines.
9. Having to take my garbage home.
8. Strange sounds -- mice running around, the dance studio repeating the "Lollipop" song over and over, haunted sound effects.
7. Carrying in drinking water -- I just wasn't convinced the water there was safe.
6. Going to the dark basement to flip the breaker.
5. Winter days with no heat.
4. Wiping my hands on the shower curtain because we were always out of paper towels.
3. People asking me, "Have you seen Kevin?" (Dolan, the owner)
2. People asking me, "Are you Kevin?"
1. Reaching into my box of Cliff bars and pulling out a handful of mice droppings.

Top 10 moments I'll Remember
10. Creating a haunted house for Manic Monday in the days before the owner started doing his. It was scary. We raised a girl from the dead in the attic and made a middle school girl cry.
9. Walking out of my office and seeing General Andrew Jackson standing in the hall
8. Scaring people. One Sunday night in December I came early to set up for the annual SOS Christmas party. But the power had gone out and the place was pitch dark. The owner was sitting in the parlor drinking wine by candlelight, and didn't know I was there. I think I scared the crap out of him.
7. Showing up early one morning and finding a "condemned" sticker on the door.
6. Slipping on the icy steps one night before SOS. I went airborne, and landed on my back, almost knocking myself out. After several minutes on the cold ground, I managed to crawl back into the house on my hands and knees, and was discovered on the floor by Mary Sarah Kneebone, who compassionately asked, "What happened to you?"
5. Andrew Wilson dropping an air conditioner out of the second story window by accident while trying to install it.
4. Beth Jones putting pizzas in the ovens and inadvertanly filling the place with the smell of mouse urine
3. Watching the filming of the Sabers and Roses Reality Show from my window. I watched them film the "surprising conclusion" about ten times.
2. Throwing giant mushrooms off the balcony and watching them explode.
1. Meeting for SOS. We met there every Sunday night for 4 years. The first night we had 65 students. We prayed at 6:18. We worshiped, laughed and cried there. Cool, historic, even creepy at times -- it was the most unusual youth center ever.

So, despite my complaints, I really am grateful for these past 10 years. I know the Landon House was God's place for us to be. It always reminded us of Jesus' words, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where thieves steal (our XBox and PS2), and moth and rust (and mice) destroy, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why not me?

Why couldn’t I have been Bryce Harper's father?

If you are a baseball fan, or a resident of the DC region, you probably know about Bryce Harper. This 17-year-old phenom, already featured on a cover of Sports Illustrated and heralded as the “LeBron James of Baseball,” was chosen by the Washington Nationals with the first pick in the 2010 Amateur Baseball Draft yesterday. He is being billed as the greatest hitting prospect in the past 50 years. Harper is already a legend. Once, when he was ten years old playing on a 12-year-old team, he went 12 for 12 in a tournament with 11 home runs and a double. This spring, when he should have been finishing his junior year of high school, Bryce was playing for a junior college in Nevada in order to be eligible for the draft. He set records and wowed the scouts with his prodigious talent. Soon he will be a multi-millionaire.

If Bryce Harper was my son, I would be quoted in the daily papers, know all the scouts on a first-name basis, have unlimited access to the highest thrones of Major League Baseball, and never need to work another day for the rest of my life.

Why couldn’t I have been Bryce Harper's father?

Instead, I am stuck with the three boys who happen to live in my house—none of whom projects as a first-round draft pick, none of whom will play Major League Baseball, appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or become a millionaire. I have been given a raw deal.

Consider Jonathan, for instance. He’s 17—same age as Bryce Harper. He’s never hit a home run in a game, though he’s given up a few. Truth be told, he likes to play guitar more than he likes to practice baseball. And get this: The other day he was sitting in church with his friends. A friend of our family, Miss Patty, the mom of one of Jonathan’s best friends, who’s been coming to church by herself for about three months, came in after the service started. She always sits with us, but we were scattered about, so she sat down by herself in the row behind Jon. And wouldn’t you know it, my son, ignoring all decorum and blowing off his friends, put his dirty shoes on the seat cushion right there in the middle of church and climbed over the seat, plopping down beside Miss Patty. The nerve of that kid! I wish he was Bryce Harper.

Or consider Timothy. He’s 15—only two years younger than Bryce Harper. He doesn’t play baseball anymore—he gave it up for tennis, of all things. What’s the future in that? Last night he was working on his homework for hours, trying to get his grades up. He says he wants to go to Grove City College—where Karen and I went to school, and more importantly, where his cousin goes now. Grove City is not exactly a professional athletic factory, if you know what I mean. And get this: After only three hours of studying, he gets lazy. Instead of studying terms like Blitzkrieg and Armistice, he gets a bucket of water and sponge and goes crazy scrubbing our refrigerator. He even threw away valuable pieces of art that have been hanging on there for years. When he was done, I didn’t even recognize it anymore (it’s white – I didn’t’ know that). The nerve of that kid! I wish he was Bryce Harper.

Or consider Thomas. He’s 12—two years older than Bryce Harper was when he was crushing those 11 home runs in a single weekend. The only home runs Thomas hits are when he assumes the identity of "Joe Random" and tries to make his way to the majors in a video game. He likes baseball and is pretty good at it, but he’s not even on the travel team in our little town. Instead, he spends most of his time sitting at the piano composing arrangements of praise songs. And get this: He can’t even leave the house or go to sleep without telling us that he loves us. Just the other night, as Karen was leaving his room and turning out the light, Thomas said to her, half-asleep, “Tell Dad I love him and thanks for being my dad.” What kind of feeble attempt at parental manipulation is that? The nerve of that kid! I wish he was Bryce Harper.

Okay, I’m done venting now. I guess I’m stuck with my three sons—limited as they are--with their bad manners, poor study habits and manipulative affections. You get what God gives you. Like the cliché says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I’ll try not to sound sour about it.

But why couldn't I have been Bryce Harper's father?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Joy, Sorrow. Baseball.

This past Friday, the Walkersville baseball team lost in the regional finals to North Hagerstown by a score of 5-2. It was a rematch of last year's regional championship, which Walkersville won. Last year was exciting, but this year I had a much greater personal investment in the outcome. It is Jon's junior year, and he's been a big part of the team. So for the past few days I've been feeling a bit downcast. I'm trying to sort out why.

One reason is that this team consisted mostly of players whom I've had the privilege of watching since they were eight years old. Many of them are seniors and so it was our final chance to see them all play together. Our first full summer in Maryland, Jonathan made the 8-year-old all-star team at Glade Valley. That scrappy crew won the Cal Ripken state tournament. The picture of those little dirty, smiling faces clutching trophies is frozen in our memory banks. They had lots of other great moments through the years, too, playing rec and travel ball, and competing in tournaments. Now about half of them are donning their caps and gowns and shaving their "playoff beards" for graduation. I don't know during which season they grew to be so tall. They are a special group of young men, and although Jonathan has another year left with some of them, it feels like a chapter has ended. It was a wonderful chapter.

Another reason I'm a bit downcast is the actual circumstances of the game. Based on the situation with the pitching staff, I was certain Jonathan was going to be a key factor in the game. Sure enough, he came in to pitch in the bottom of the 3rd. There was a 2-0 count, a runner at second, two outs, and we trailed 2-0. He got two quick strikes and I was sure he was going to be the hero, but then the batter hit a ground ball through the hole between third and short to plate the opponent's third run. I felt that ball scrape across my heart as it trickled into left field.

Jon pitched another 2 1/3 innings after that. He threw quite well, striking out North's #3 hitter and not allowing any good contact. But some more ground balls found their way through, a few plays didn't quite get made, and there was a strange stoppage of play that resulted in a balk, sending my taut emotions over the edge. The result of all that was another two runs. Meanwhile, as every baseball fan knows, hitting is as fickle as a girl with three prom invitations, and on this day, the Walkersville bats chose their right to remain silent. The five runs were too much to overcome. Jon needed to be great for his team to have a chance, and he was merely good. I felt his pain.

So we're left wondering what might have been. Two more wins, and we would have been playing for the Maryland state championship at Cal Ripken Stadium this weekend. How incredible it would have been to see those dusty eight-year-olds come full circle and win a state championship again. My wife tells me I spend too much time "what-iffing," but I wonder what it would have been like to see one of these kids I know so well make the key play or get the big hit, or to see Jonathan at the bottom of a dog pile after recording the final out? What a glorious moment that will be for some young man this weekend. His parents will cry, I'm sure.

So I'm sorting out my emotions. For someone who loves the game as much as I do--for whom baseball is inseparable from life--to have the joy of watching my son and his friends display such talent and achieve such success all these years has been a gift. But every season comes to an end, whether we are ready or not, and I guess that's the only time it hurts to come home. Joy and pain are as intricately connected as winning and losing. I'm just not sure which is responsible for the tears in my eyes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Nostradamos, You Got Nothing On Me!

We had our annual “Senior Banquet” for the youth ministry on Sunday night. It was a great night for everybody there. We laughed a lot, shed a few tears, and reminisced about the many wonderful times we had together. We recognized 13 seniors, many of whom have been part of our youth ministry for seven years, and all of whom were faithful participants to the end. That’s unusual for a group of seniors, and for this reason, and many others, I’m particularly fond of this class. I have an abundance of memories of each one of them, and it was fun to sift through the thousands of pictures and video clips of our many experiences together.

One of our traditions at this banquet is a thing I call “Senior Futures.” After much prayer, deep soul-searching, and conversations with the Holy Spirit, I write down what each senior’s future is destined to be. Ok, I confess the only “spirit” these come from is the spirit of caffeine and sleep-deprived insanity, but nevertheless, they could come true. I mean, anything is possible with Christ, right? I can’t publish the full “stories” here, but here’s the list in an nutshell. If you know any of these kids, you’ll definitely get a kick out of them. They are in order in the picture above, left to right.

Andrew Tolbert –- Forges career as Jonathan Lipnicki look-alike (he’s the little kid on Jerry Macguire)

Laura Beth Stafford –- Mother of five boys is driven to become Cookie Entrepreneur

Grace Kneebone -- Is “discovered” and becomes Rock Star and Judge on American Idol

Zach Bensley -- Enters newly formed “College of Hogwarts, later becomes founder of Mercedes Bensley (cars for tall people)

Heather Mee -- Majors in surfing at Biola and marries hippie guy named Jon Yu, making her Mrs. Mee-Yu

Jacob Augustine -- Mistaken for Luke Skywalker, becomes Heir of the Star Wars saga

Carlee Lambros -- Future “Mrs. Keckler’s” strange power to text animals leads to career as pet psychologist

Travis Lowery -- Graduates from Jimmy Cone College to become Circus Acrobat and successor to Six Flags dancing guy

Kristen Seymour – Becomes crazed Field Hockey Coach of Five-Year-Old Girls

Daniel Henry -- Founder of the Jewish Ultimate Frisbee League (this was my personal favorite)

Rebecca McDaniel -– Saves child falling from Ferris Wheel to win Frederick County Fair Princess and inherit giant shoe house

Kasey Ring -– Yet another mysterious illness leads her to become Patient of Dr. House; she recovers to cheer for Liberty flames

Adam Krop -- Flunks out of Princeton but makes comeback as Professional Wrestler and creator of the signature "Krop Circle" move

I suspect the accuracy of my predictions may be less than 100%, but one thing I do know for sure; these young men and women are going out into the future with a full measure of our love and best wishes. The Lord has blessed our years together, and I trust that the truths they’ve hidden in their hearts will guide them through life. Seniors; remember that your true identity is a child of God. That is what you are! Nights like Sunday can carry a youth pastor for another year.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bureaucracy vs. Architecture.... and the Winner is....

In just a few months, Mountain View Community Church will be taking up residence in our new church building. After 13 years of meeting in a high school, we are very excited to have our own place to call home. I can remember most of the lengthy process it took to get there -- buying land, hiring an architect, forming committees, evaluating and envisioning our space needs, sitting in congregational meetings, raising funds. It hasn't been easy, but God has been good to us and our people have been generous. Our dreams are becoming realities, including my dream of a youth center to house our awesome student ministries. Soon Mountain View will have 30,000 square feet of space in which we can do whatever we want, whenever we want.

Well, almost. We can't have a cross. At least on the outside.

Throughout the lengthy process of creating this building, one theme that came up more than once was, "We want it to look like a church." That can mean a lot of different things. Certainly, no one was thinking medieval cathedral, but we wanted something to set it apart from a school, library or auto body shop.

As the design took shape, it became clear that cost restrictions and design preferences would preclude such classic touches as a bell tower or steeple. So someone proposed a simple idea that seemed to accomplish our goal. What if we put a cross on the side of the building, tastefully and artfully done, back-lit for a pleasant affect at night? This would be a nice, inexpensive touch, and ensure that everyone passing by would know this is a church.

Not so fast. When the design for this feature was submitted to the county for approval--along with other important details like the number of loops in the lobby carpet, the shade of leaves on the exterior shrubbery, and the capacity for individual sheets of toilet paper to be flushed in any given 48-hour period--the wise and magnanimous Frederick County Permit Office informed us that this was unacceptable. In fact, it was a violation of code 481037-f7-b5, which explicitly states that the amount of signage permissible for a building our size is 60 square feet.

That's right--a cross is considered a sign, no different, I guess, than a golden arch. Erecting a cross AND a sign with our church name on it would be a gross violation of our signage limits, akin to allowing us to float a giant inflatable Jesus over Rt. 270. When pressed, the FCPO's polite response was "What we say, goes."

The common sense oozing from this official declaration got me thinking. The cross, a symbol of faith and an important element of architecture for hundreds of years, is now considered nothing more than a sign in violation of code. What other historic feats of architecture would never have seen the light of day had they been built in Frederick County in 2010? Imagine the conversations.

"I'm sorry, Pharoah, but your pyramid is required to have 8,394 other sources of egress..."

"Citizens of Pisa, your tower must be knocked down and replaced with a one-story structure..."

"Michelangelo, we have tested the paint you are using on this chapel ceiling. The lead content presents presents a hazard for young children who may climb up here and eat it..."

"All skyscrapers with iconic towers are required to have ape-proof fencing around the exterior..."

"You are allowed a maximum of seven letters. You will have to go with H-O-L-L-Y-W-O..."

So, chalk up another victory for bureaucratic common sense. We can all rest easy knowing we have a county government to protect our safety, manage our growth, and preserve our freedom. We will be spared from unsightly crosses, giant apes, and other heinous violations of architectural decorum.

I wonder what they'll say when we hang that cross from the ceiling?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

God's Day Timer

Every Tuesday morning, I sit down with my Planner Pad and plot out the course of my week. I group things into categories (prayer, teaching, leadership, encouragement, administration) and try to figure out how to manage my time to accomplish everything I'm supposed to accomplish, talk with everyone I'm supposed to talk with, and be everywhere I'm supposed to be.

This morning, my list started with "drink coffee," because I was really sleepy. First things first. Prayer was next.

Anyway, I just finished filling in the rest of the blanks with important tasks -- plan Sunday's parent meeting, SOS movie night, and next week's staff meeting. Write the weekly email. Get back to her. Arrange to meet with him. Call so-and-so about this'n that. It really helps me to see my week in front of me, and it blesses me to be able to X-out the tasks when they've been done. I feel like I've accomplished something at the end of the week. I guess I have.

I'm glad God doesn't work like that, though. For God, there is no such thing as a Day Timer. He doesn't need to keep track of anything, and he never checks off something as finished. There's a big difference between being a steward of responsibilities and being God. God is just...there. Doing. Working. Amidst. Among. Outside. Inside. Holding Up. Sustaining. That's who he is. No administrative assistant, no reminder emails. He's God. Always completely involved and never forgetting the smallest detail, from setting up a king to caring for a sparrow.

Consider God's relationship to time. He sees the beginning, the middle and the end of all our human activities and days, and has forever. Time is irrelevant to him and he can even bend it if he wishes. Because he's outside of the whole scene, He doesn't need to make himself notes, "Scare the heck out of Zechariah in the Temple. Remind Gabriel to visit Mary. Prepare stable. Stick star in sky." God is beyond the sequence and intimately involved in it. All things are at work because of God. He holds all things together.

Consider God's relationship to our will. That's a mystery too big for anyone to understand, but somehow God allows our choices to affect our circumstances and the circumstances of others. Our prayers can even change the course of events on the earth. Yet nothing happens that surprises him and nothing happens without his foreknowledge. We can sin, we can fail, but we can't thwart the plans of God, who sees the whole amazing tapestry of every person in the world, and knits it all together in his perfect plan.

Consider God's relationship to you and me. We plan, we schedule, we discipline ourselves to complete our tasks. We think some things are more spiritual than others, and some of us make great efforts to improve spiritually, physically, intellectually, or whatever. But God works through every detail of our lives, even the ones we are unaware of, to make us aware of him and more like him. Every moment (if you can use that term in relationship to God) he is thinking completely of every one of us, pouring out his love and his mercy.

Romans 11:34 says, "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" The answer is, of course, no one but God himself.

And he can keep track of it all without writing it down on his Planner Pad or programming it into his Blackberry.

So today, as I set my agenda for the week, I'm glad that I have a purpose and a mission, and I will work hard to complete it. But I will also pause and remember that God directs my days. He is at work. Always has been. Always will be. His agenda is the only one that really matters. Remembering he's at work makes my work a lot less overwhelming.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reflecting on a Decade of Youth Ministry and Pondering the Next One

(This is an article I wrote for our student ministry newsletter. It's a bit long for a blog, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.)

I cannot believe it’s already 2010. Where did this decade go--these 3,652 days, 87,648 hours, 5,258,880 minutes? Think for a moment about the things we now take for granted that did not exist, or at least weren’t as commonplace, just ten years ago, things that most of us need to survive:

Cell phones Facebook Panera Bread
Texting Flat screen TVs YouTube
Ipods Terrorist Alert Colors
Miley Cyrus (I don’t need her to survive, but some of you do!)

Anyway, for most of the people reading this, the now-ending decade equals the majority of your life. For me, it’s like somebody hit the FF button on my remote and skipped a whole scene.

It seems like yesterday we were preparing for the turn of the century, known at the time as Y2K. There was a lot of hype that night. People were worried the world was going to end, all computers were going to crash, the electric grid was going to explode, and the moon was going to fall out of the sky. They stocked cases of water and giant cans of beans in their pantry. I celebrated by parking cars at a country club in Colorado to earn some cash. It was our last year of seminary. We were poor and happy. Karen was at home with three little boys. Thomas was only 1 ½. The world didn’t end. In fact, for us it seemed to be just beginning.

A few months later, I walked across the stage to accept my diploma. I was as proud as David after slaying Goliath. I only had two B’s my entire seminary career (both in Greek). I got an award as the best preacher in my class. I had already visited, interviewed, and been hired as the first-ever youth pastor at Mountain View Community Church. I even had a fancy title: Associate Pastor of Student Ministries. It was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. We celebrated with a family vacation to Yellowstone, where we camped under a sky as big as the dreams we shared.

We arrived in Maryland in June and moved into a home the church had arranged for us to rent in Adamstown. It was a cool old house, but one of the first days there, Karen saw a spider big enough to be Maryland’s third largest city. A couple of days later, we were looking at a little brick ranch house in Walkersville. It was about the 10th house we’d looked at that day. It was small, but the backyard was huge, the neighbors were nice, and while we were there a little steam engine rambled down a railroad track behind the fence. We knew. The boys have grown up in that house.

Of course, while our boys grew up, so did the youth ministry at Mountain View. Our first event was XXXL Beach Day – a one-day marathon to Rehoboth Beach. Joel Stafford “helped” out—he pulled up beside me at a stoplight and opened fire with a Super Soaker. Some things never change. A 7th-grader named Ben Roembke ignored my plea to put on sunscreen. On the way home, the fair-skinned, freckled Ben was in agony, shivering and moaning in the back seat of my car while I debated about what I was going to say to his parents. Either, “I’m so sorry; I should have put the sunscreen on him myself,” or “Your son is dumb.”

That fall, we started SOS. I thought the name was cool, an import from Colorado. It stood for Stoked on Sundays—you know, “stoked,” as in, “Woah, Dude, there’s a foot of powder today! I’m stoked! Let’s grab some big air.” The kids thought I was a dork and made fun of me. I cajoled Scott and Erika Rape to join me as my first staff recruits. We were the whole senior high youth staff.

We met at DeGrazia’s house in Holly Hills. Their basement was perfect. Mrs. DeGrazia stocked the fridge with sodas and made us pizza. That was probably the reason anybody came. Somehow I convinced 13 kids to go on a retreat despite having no real answer for their nagging question, “What’re we gonna do there?” Melissa Hite (who has since moved to Florida) called to offer to teach Sunday School. I told her she had to come on the retreat. Scott and Erika came, too, with their new baby, Cale. There were 18 of us that weekend at a little camp called Refreshing Mountain. I brought an Al Gore mask; he was running for president. He’s in the picture.
Meanwhile, our middle school group met at Urbana Elementary for something called Manic Mondays. Now that was a name that made sense! Trying to teach a lesson to kids sitting on the floor in the corner of the gym was like trying to get the attention of a cattle herd by waving a feather. On more than one occasion I thought it might be worth the jail time to strangle Christopher Reynolds and Nathaniel Jones, two incorrigible middle school boys. I needed more than Joel’s Super Soaker.

In the summer of 2001, we took our first mission trip to Matamoros, Mexico. The heat, the rotten-egg- smelling showers, and the dirty-toilet-paper-in-the-garbage-instead-of-the-toilet changed us all, but not as much as the incredible bond we felt with the people we could barely understand.

In the fall of 2001, we officially became The View. An old acquaintance of mine was working as a graphic designer near Harrisburg. I asked him to make us a logo that looked kind of like “Mountain Dew, only with a cross.” He did a good job.

In the summer of 2002, 29 people had nothing better to do, so they signed up to to go to Atlanta for something called “Nationals.” I told them it was going to be awesome. They didn’t believe me, but they went anyway. It was 95 degrees with 100% humidity when we arrived.

That evening, we walked into Georgia Tech’s basketball arena. The place was packed with 6,000 students. Lasers lit up the room, speakers blared. Our students looked like a bunch of Amish kids who’d been air-dropped into Disney World. Soon a little guy nobody had ever heard of named Chris Tomlin started to play. By the end of the week, our lives were changed. Mary Sarah Kneebone was changed the most – she no longer hated me. And more importantly, she loved God.

I could go on for a long time. There are so many memories from the past ten years. There was the first-ever video-making contest in 2002, producing the classic, “Monday Night Football.” There was the trip to Nationals in Salt Lake City in 2004, when we took advantage of our time in the west to climb rocks at Zion National Park, ride horses through the dust of Bryce Canyon, and eat burgers fresh off the buffalo at the ranch. There were more mission trips to Mexico, Peru, Pittsburgh and New Orleans—and more fall retreats at Refreshing Mountain. There were long drives through the snow to Camp Orchard Hill, and short drives to deliver blankets to the homeless in DC. We changed Manic Mondays to Mini Mondays and then, for obvious reasons, to Wise On Wednesdays. We moved SOS from DeGrazia’s to Katsotis’s to the Landon House to Jones’s and eventually to Leggit’s. We celebrated Christmas with the microwaveable egg timer reappearing year after year as the prized gift, and started a sweet banquet to honor our seniors.

We laughed a lot. We learned a lot (I hope). And we cried a lot, too, especially when Louisa died, a moment most of you won’t remember, and which I will never forget. It was December 5, 2005--the halfway point of the decade, and the seminal moment of Mountain View’s youth ministry. I’ve never looked at this ministry the same way again. It’s really, really important to realize the battle we face as we fight for the souls of young men and women.

And through all of this, God was good. He was faithful. He was teaching us. He was growing us. He was leading us. He was living in us. As he has always done, and will always do. Everything changes, except Him.

Who knows how the world will be different ten years from now. I heard that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are merging into a new network called YouTwitFace.

But this new decade belongs to you—the current generation of the View. You may be 12, 13, maybe 17, and your time at the View is now! Take advantage of it. SOS and WOW will provide friendship and community. Morning View (soon to be “DTour”) will provide discipleship. Backoftheline will provide practice. Mission trips will provide new eyes. Challenge will provide passion. The youth staff will provide guidance and love. Our new youth center will provide space (Woohoo!). The Holy Spirit will provide a new heart. And YOU will provide the enthusiasm and energy necessary to make our memories complete and our decade all it’s meant to be.

How fast will these next 3,652 days go? If they go by as quickly as the past ones did, I’m going to need oxygen to catch my breath. But I’m ready. And whether you know it or not, so are you!
Happy New Decade!