Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Top 10 Most Fascinating People

In honor of Barbara Walters’ annual list of the World’s Most Fascinating People, I was thinking about who would be on my list. After all, the people who really make life interesting are the ones we know, love, and interact with every day. So I’ve created a quick list of 10 people I admire and find fascinating. My stipulation is that I must know them personally, and they cannot be family. Okay, here we go:

10. Rick Richtmyer

Nothing makes me smile like Rick jamming out on guitar with the church worship band, while everyone else on stage is young enough to be his grandchild. The students all dig him.

9. Alexis Tchou and Kira Rubert
I love Alexis’s earnestness regarding her faith and her unwavering commitment to our youth ministry. She takes an interest in me personally and in my family. And she hugs me every time she sees me. Kira is the new Ausinette – the high school student who loves everyone, gets along with everyone, is super cool, and is “all-in” for the youth ministry. And like Alexis, she hugs me every time she sees me. (Don’t worry Ausinette – you can’t be replaced, only imitated!)

8. Nick Hage
This TJ junior just became a Christian this summer, was baptized last month, and wants to start a Bible study at his school? Dude is on fire!

7. Dan Herbert (aka. Crazy Uncle Dan)

The first time I met him I thought: Who is this guy (weirdo) with the big hair and the shirt half unbuttoned? Dan is unique – at youth conferences, he ends up on river boats eating dinner with complete strangers. But after watching him serve his struggling youth group faithfully, selflessly, and bi-vocationally for nearly five years, with seemingly little appreciation, he has become one of my heroes.

6. John Kutchey
I don't know John that well but I admire him a lot. He has coached my son Tim in basketball and baseball over the years, and we always loved the mix of knowledge, fun, encouragement and feistiness he brought to the team. He seems to have an endless supply of energy, between a demanding job, always coaching multiple teams, and being a good family guy. He's a fascinating Facebook poster, too. Only downside? That ridiculous purple bird on his car.

5. Peg Lowery and Andrea Rodriguez (tie)
Two of my favorite people exude many of the same qualities. Through all circumstances, including some very difficult family challenges, they both are steady as a river, and always loving everyone around them. Great friends and even better people.

4. Jim Newberry

I talk to my “coach” every month. It’s an odd combination of professional and personal relationship, but the wisdom Jim has dropped on me has changed the way I view my life and my calling. Though I’m a little older than he is, he’s the guru I count on to uncover greater effectiveness as a pastor and leader.

3. Patrick Curtis
I’m not gonna lie—it made me nervous hiring the senior pastor’s nephew as my intern. The things that could go wrong with that scenario! But Patrick has jumped into life at Mountain View better, faster and deeper than I could have imagined. He displays wisdom beyond his years, is diligent in his responsibilities, and is respectful of me. I’m thrilled to have him as my partner and friend.

2. Joel Stafford
Joel is simply one of the best men I know. His integrity, humility, and character are exceeded by no one. He is serious, and he is fun. He mixes the two perfectly in his role as the ageless youth worker. He has served the youth of this community faithfully and generously for 15 years, and his impact on the young men of Mountain View is exceeded by no one.

1. Karen Anderson
I had to break my own rules for the last one. My wife is my most interesting person. Her personal discipline is amazing, She gets up at 4:45 every day for exercise and devotions. Then she teaches in a demanding school environment that would have put me six feet under a long time ago. And she still has time for me, including working with the high school team just so our lives can converge more. She sees the best in people. She taught me the love of coffee. Yeah, and those early morning workouts pay off, because she’s a babe, too.

So there’s my list. If you didn’t make it, don’t be offended. I could add many more. I don’t know who was on Barbara Walters’ list, but I don’t really care. I’d take these 10 over her 10 any day of the week.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I have lots of people I admire and a select few I consider my heroes. But there's only one person I want to be. I get to see him on Friday night.

Our youth staff is going to see Andrew Peterson and his "Behold The Lamb" tour this Friday.

"Behold the Lamb" is the Christmas story told through a series of songs. It's a beautiful work of art written mostly by Andrew, and will be told by a variety of very talented musicians who travel with him every December, presenting it to audiences around the country.

For those unfamiliar with Andrew, he's a songwriter from Tennessee with 10 or 12 CDs to his credit. The first time I heard him, I wondered about his voice (a bit nasal), but the more I listened, the more I realized what an amazing songwriter he is. In the tradition of Rich Mullins (one of my heroes), Andrew sees God at work everywhere, especially in nature and in common people. He is able to capture the intersection of heaven and earth in melodies, phrases, analogies and stories like few others can. I love many of his songs. A few make me cry nearly every time I listen to them.

He is one of the founders of the Square Peg Alliance, and a contributor to the Rabbit Room, two communities of artists and musicians who bring Christian warmth and imagination to their cultural reflections and creations. To top it off, Andrew writes books for children, including a CS-Lewis like series called "The Wingfeather Saga," a four-part series full of whimsy, adventure, and toothy cows. He lives in Tennessee with his wife and three kids in a home he's nicknamed, "The Warren."

So in a nutshell, Andrew Peterson's life consists of writing great music, performing with legendary musicians, traveling when he wants to, interacting with musicians and artists of amazing creativity and faith, and writing stories, mostly for children. He doesn't have a dream job. He has a dream life. I want to be him. If only I could play guitar!

I'm exaggerating a little, of course. A few years ago Karen and I got the chance to meet him after a concert, and he's also a really nice guy, very down-to-earth and self-effacing. I'm sure he'd think my life was pretty swell and worthwhile. He's the son of a pastor after all. And he's funny, too. He'd probably say something like, "Don't be silly, Andrew Peterson."

Writing, singing, playing, creating -- I love what he does. So maybe when he's done being himself, Andrew will let me have a turn. Until then, I'll enjoy his work vicariously and go see him play when I have a chance. You should, too. I think there are still tickets available. Behold the Lamb is playing 7:00pm Friday at Covenant Life in Gaithersburg.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No Pain, No Gain

I had surgery on my right shoulder two weeks ago. My shoulder has bothered me for years, the result of a lifetime of playing baseball and softball. But over the past six months, it got to the point where I was having trouble sleeping, could barely put on my shirt, and could not throw a pencil, let alone a ball. It was so bad that one morning I almost passed out defending my wife. I swatted a large spider that was causing her distress in the kitchen. It wasn't exactly as big as the one that chased down Frodo on Mount Doom, but it was big enough to require extreme measures. My sudden act of violence brought a quick end to the spider, but caused me such pain that I wished for his fate for myself.

So after trying physical therapy, cortisone, and home therapy--all to no avail--I finally had arthroscopic surgery on my shoulder. By surgical standards, it was a fairly simple procedure. They cleaned out some minor, unimportant, inflamed flesh. I only had two small holes and two stitches. I was moving it by the next day, and just this morning had my second post-op physical therapy.

So now comes the hard part. Pushing past the pain to get my shoulder back to good health.

The physical therapist is both kind and evil. Her kindness and desire for my healing is masked by her insistence that I stretch my shoulder into positions of discomfort. Positions of pain. Agony even. Above my head. Behind my back. The hitchhiker motion. They all feel like torture. I went through this with my other shoulder years ago, and there were times I wanted to put the therapist in one of those Jack Bauer face-up-against-wall-with-arms-twisted-behind-the-back positions and yell, "How's that feel? Huh? You like that?" But my therapist has had the same surgery. She knows that if I don't stretch, my shoulder will freeze up and I will be unable to use it fully. So the kind and evil therapist is doing me a favor. Stretching will help my shoulder grow new tissue that is more flexible and elastic. In time, the pain will subside and my shoulder will regain its full range of motion and feel as good as new. I will be able to kill all the spiders I want without hurting myself. Yes, I will be able to do great things.

Stretching hurts, but it's the only way to heal. It's a classic case of "no pain, no gain."

Sounds like a good spiritual lesson, doesn't it? Just as stretching causes pain which is followed by healing and growth, so being a disciple of Jesus requires stretching which causes pain which is followed by healing and growth.

Following Jesus hurts in a thousand ways. Saying we're sorry. Reaching out to the awkward. Sacrificing our money or our time. Putting our heart out there for others when we might get nothing in return. Being ridiculed. Yes, these things hurt. Sometimes they hurt so bad we want to throw God up against the wall and say, "How's that feel? Huh? You like that?"

And Jesus, knowing full well how it feels, takes our arms, stretches them out, and says, "This is for your own good. Take up your cross and follow me."

No pain, no gain. Whether our therapy is physical or spiritual, the pain we experience while being stretched will make us healthier, more flexible, and capable of even greater feats of strength and faithfulness. It's going to hurt, but it will be worth it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Food for Thought

(As I near my return from sabbatical, it's time for a blog. Warning: This blog will not be nearly as satisfying as waffle fries.)

The employees of Chick fil-A are running around like chickens with their heads cut off today as Christians all over the country gobble up chicken sandwiches and drink lemonade in support of the company's stand against gay marriage. It's all over Facebook. Many of my students and friends are posting pictures of ketchup packets and empty fry boxes. I'm a little jealous. I like Chick Fil-A. I don't like pickles on my chicken sandwich, but I might be there, too, if it didn't cost me eight bucks for a #1 meal.

I can understand the outcry. I believe marriage is designed by God to be for a man and a woman. It is getting difficult to publicly hold any convictions in our society without being labeled a hater or a bigot. In a country based on religious freedom, it's outrageous that any politician would threaten a company because its owners, operating in full compliance with the law, hold a personal religious conviction. The Mayor of Chicago said, "Chick fil-A's values are not our values." Given that it's a city of 2.7 million people, I can't imagine what Chicago's unified "values" might be, but my guess is that many of its residents don't really value the mayor's opinions much. I doubt he's as popular as a good chicken sandwich.

Nevertheless, politicians in Illinois, New York and Vermont have pledged to oppose the opening of new Chick fil-A stores in their regions. This is a ridiculous intervention by self-proclaimed "thought police." Chick Fil-A didn't invent the traditional view of marriage -- they invented the chicken sandwich. As one of my friends posted on Facebook, "Let's ask the Christian conservative owner of a business that isn't open on Sundays his opinion on gay marriage, and then get offended when we don't like his answer." I liken these modern-day attempts at intimidation to opposing black-owned businesses in the south, or worse, closing Jewish-owned businesses in Nazi Germany. Can you imagine the outcry if New York decided to oppose the opening of a Jewish business because of the owner's religious convictions?

To add salt to the wounded waffle fries, Jim Henson's company pulled their toys from Chick fil-A kids' meals. I didn't know Muppets even had a sexual orientation, other than Miss Piggy shamefully lusting for Kermit. She's really quite immodest, and I admire Kermit's commitment to purity. I'm sure not giving out plastic Elmos will cut into the Chick fil-A profits by 0.00%.

However, while I'm in support of Chick fil-A, I have a few thoughts of my own to share, a few feathers to ruffle, or pluck, so to speak.

First, to my friends who are gay: You are still my friends. I hope you don't hate me for having convictions. There's a big difference between trying to honor what I believe God says, and being a hateful bigot. Really, the only people I have trouble loving are the super self-righteous. We can probably agree on that.

Second, to my conservative friends: Instead of making a big show of eating at Chick fil-A today, wouldn't it be a bigger testimony to your faith to support Chick fil-A's convictions about the Sabbath? What if, for the next year, instead of saying, "I wish Chick fil-A were open!" as you head to Subway, Olive Garden, Chipotle--or, heaven forbid--McDonalds, on your way home from church, you invited somebody (new, or different) to your home for peanut butter sandwiches and milk. Now THAT would honor the spirit of Chick fil-A! (I could never keep this pledge, but it's an amazing idea!)

Lastly, I wonder where Jesus would be eating lunch today? Would he be at Chick fil-A, supporting the traditional view of marriage with chicken nuggets and a hand-spun vanilla shake? Maybe. I'd love it if he could multiply a couple of those to feed me 5000 times. But I doubt it. From what we know about his tastes, it seems more likely he would be at Long John Silvers or Panera Bread (He couldn't afford Bonefish Grill). From what we know about his character, he'd probably be eating jello at the hospice house with a dying AIDS patient.

In a nutshell, I'm challenging myself -- and anyone who reads this -- to hold convictions with passion and humility, to honor God with actions that speak louder than words, to love people, no matter what they believe, and to emulate Jesus as best we can in a world that just doesn't understand him.

I'm going to go make myself a sandwich now, without the pickles.

Monday, May 7, 2012

How to know you are relevant

This past weekend, the Philadelphia Phillies, a perennial power in the National League, came to Washington for a three game series with the Nationals. In the past, fans from Philadelphia have followed their team to the nation's capital in droves, buying thousands of tickets and turning the Nationals' ballpark into "Philadelphia South." This was because the successful Phillies often sell out their games, while the yet-to-be-successful Nationals rarely do. Enthusiastic Phillies fans found it easy to annex DC as another venue to watch their team's quest for the pennant.

This year, things are a bit different. The Phillies are struggling at .500 as several of their aging stars have been relegated to the disabled list. Meanwhile, the Nationals are in first place, and are becoming the talk of baseball. They boast the game's two most-hyped young superstars (Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper) and an improving lineup that appears poised to be a perennial title contender.

In an effort to defend their team and create some pride, Nationals management and several DC community leaders launched the "Take Back the Ballpark" campaign. The campaign encouraged Washington fans to come to the park themselves and not allow the illegal aliens from Philadelphia to become DC squatters. The Nationals even went so far as to film a short commercial in which their mascot (Screech) "tricked" two Phillies fans to get onto the Nationals team bus so they could be unceremoniously dumped in parking lot of Citizens' Bank Park in Philly. (On a side note: Screech has a long way to go before he can rival the Philly Phanatic. And who named him "Screech?" What in the world does that have to do with Washington, DC? They should have named him "Philly-buster." )

More important, however, is what took place on the field. After the Nationals took the first two games of the series, the Phillies were feeling somewhat offended. So on Sunday night, in the bottom of the first inning, with two outs and none on, Phillies star pitcher Cole Hamels decided to throw at 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper. He hit him squarely in the back. Harper shook it off, then proceeded to aggressively run his way around the bases, eventually stealing home on a pickoff attempt. Hamels later admitted he hit Harper on purpose, calling it "old school baseball" and claiming he was teaching the young buck a lesson. Harper was not allowed to comment, but Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo responded by calling Hamels a "chickens_ _t" and demanding he be suspended. I find it all quite entertaining.

The Phillies won the game, and saved some face in the process. However, this exchange is a harbinger of a new era of baseball for DC. A rivalry has been born--one not possible before because the Nationals weren't any good. Now the Phillies feel threatened by Harper and his teammates and genuine dislike is building between two clubs separated only by 100 miles and a basket of cheese steaks. As Bryce Harper's back can now attest, the Nationals are a threat.

This is proof of a universal truth: Until you get plunked, you aren't a threat to anyone. Until you have an enemy throwing at you, you are irrelevant.

It's true in baseball, and it's true in the Christian life. If we are doing nothing for the Lord, sitting on the bench, wasting our time, with no ambition of contending for anything, we are no threat to the devil and need not fear his wrath. However, if we are making progress for his kingdom -- sharing the gospel, spreading the glory of God, loving people into the kingdom, fighting evil -- then, indeed, we tick off our enemy. The devil does not bother much with irrelevant people. He goes for the ones who are making a difference. Personally, I have often felt the greatest degree of spiritual attack when I am doing the most good for God. As unpleasant as it may be, being attacked by discouragement, conflict, and temptation is one of the surest signs that I am doing something that matters. The devil is a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). In other words, when I am relevant, I have to watch my back.

Did you get plunked today? That's a good sign. It might hurt, but shake it off and keep running until you reach home. Only those who present a threat are worthy of being called a rival.

Welcome to relevance.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Sign

Last year I posted my Good Friday message here on my blog. Here is the message I am giving tonight (one of three being given). It is based on John 19:19-24

Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth: the King of the Jews. (John 19:19)

Sometimes a sign is just a sign. It is what is says--straight forward with no complications.
• Open or closed
• Eggs 1.99 a dozen
• Please use side entrance
• Frederick 4 miles
• No loitering, no smoking, no shirt, no shoes, no service

Sometimes a sign is more than a sign. Sometimes it holds potential meaning, proposes a series of potential events, not only informs, but strongly suggests, or even demands action.
• Caution: bridge becomes icy before road
• Slow down: falling rocks
• Warning: high voltage
• If you are caught shoplifting, you will be prosecuted

What kind of sign was this one, placed upon the cross above Jesus’ head? This sign was commissioned by Pilate, the Roman governor. He was the power broker in the story with Christ, at least from a human perspective. He is one weighing the options as the crowd and the religious leaders demand the blood of Jesus. Clearly, he is uncomfortable with this whole situation. He does not want to make a ruling in this case; he just wants it to go away. He sees no reason for Jesus to be crucified. His wife has frightened him with talk of dreams. He does not comprehend this claim that Jesus is a king, and seems surprised that this simple, humble man does not deny it in order to be set free.

So now, stuck between a rock and a hard place, he washes his hands of the matter and reluctantly sends Jesus to be crucified. Yet before he does so, he feels it is necessary to commission a sign.

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

The words themselves are filled with irony. Jesus of Nazareth? This is the Roman Empire we are talking about. It is the greatest civilization in history. The Roman Emperor is not only the most powerful man in the world, he is god-like. How could a man from the remotest portion of that empire in any way rival the rule of Caesar? King of nothing, Pilate should have written.

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews

King of the Jews? Isn’t Jesus himself a Jew? Isn’t it the Jewish leaders who are begging to have him killed? Aren’t they the ones shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”? Something about this man has them so angry that these people who hate the Romans and their Emperor, shout at the top of their lungs, “We have no king but Caesar!”

Why are they so mad? Pilate must be wondering. What has them so outraged that they scream blasphemy against their own God by claiming allegiance to the Caesar they abhor? Pilate is confused. He is troubled. He is frustrated. He is disgusted. For all these reasons – and probably to take one last jab at the crowd – Pilate orders this sign to be written and placed above the head of this man on the cross. It is there in three languages for all to see; Aramaic, for the commoners from Palestine, Latin, for the occupying army, Greek, for the visitors and foreigners.
Jesus of Nazareth – the King of the Jews.

He knew what they’d say.

“No, no, no! You can’t write that! He’s not our king. He claimed to be king. Change the sign. Change the sign!”

“What I have written, I have written.”

Pilate may not have understood much of what was happening, but he knew there was more to this story then a simple trial. He knew this man Jesus had aroused something deep inside of the religious establishment – fear, hatred, or both. He had heard the stories of miracles and healings. He knew that many loved this man and thought he had come from God himself. He knew that somehow, this man represented something bigger than just another day at the office of the governor– a sign that something else, or someone else, was controlling the events coming down in Jerusalem that day. Yes, even Pilate knew that Jesus was a sign of something else.

This will be a sign to you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12)

This child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. (Luke 2:34)

You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. (Matthew 16:3)

Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be a sign that they are about to be fulfilled? (Mark 13:4)

Pilate knew something was happening over which he had little say, and so he let the sign stand, despite the pleas of the angry mob. “What I have written, I have written.”

So it was no accident that what happened next served to confirm the sign.

“When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. 'Let’s not tear it,' they said to one another. Let’s decide by lot who will get it. This happened that the Scripture might be fulfilled among them:

'They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.' ”

The Scripture being fulfilled is Psalm 22, the great poem predicting the means of the death of Israel’s Messiah. It is the same poem that spoke of crucifixion before crucifixion had been invented, that spoke of abandonment by God, of thirst like torture on the tongue, of the piercing of hands and feet, of a side pierced by a spear, of blood and water poured out, of mocking and insults, and yes, of clothing being bartered over like a pathetic flea market on the backstreets of a middle-eastern ghetto.

As the soldiers affirm the prophecy with their actions, the sign hangs over them, speaking louder and louder.

Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.

Sometimes a sign is just a sign. And sometimes a sign is more than a sign. Sometimes it holds potential meaning, proposes a series of events, not only informs, but strongly suggests, or even demands action.

What I have written, I have written, says Pilate.

And says God.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hoping She Goes M.I.A.

So apparently this past Sunday night, M.I.A. flipped me off. Dressed like a castoff from an old Bangles video, and performing a classy routine during Madonna's halftime show at the Super Bowl, M.I.A. thought it necessary to give me the finger.

I missed it. I was at a big Super Bowl party at church, and had gathered all the kids in another room for halftime so I could show off my mad skills at Just Dance. You might say I was putting on my own halftime show. I have moves like Jagger. I was having so much fun dancing with my wife and the gang at the party that I got a little sweaty and had to take off my shirt. But I had a t-shirt on underneath, just in case you were concerned about a wardrobe malfunction.

So I wasn't aware of M.I.A.'s anger towards me until Monday morning.

Honestly, I had never even heard of M.I.A. before. All I knew of her was the picture I saw online, dressed like King Tut, flipping me the finger. Something stuck in my memory banks though. I swear I saw the headpiece she was wearing in a photo shoot in National Geographic, and that finger looked vaguely familiar too. A rear view mirror on Route 270, perhaps? I'm not sure. Anyway, I couldn't place her face, so I did an internet search. It turns out she's not a P.O.W. or even M.I.A. Instead, she's a British rap "artist" known for her "performance." She's also in a relationship with the lead singer from D.O.A., with whom she was seen exhibiting P.D.A. while trying to get through T.S.A. at D.I.A. None of that explains why she was mad at S.H.A. (that's me).

I guess I'll just be left wondering, though not for long. I mean, with talent like hers, who needs shock value? Since I didn't even know she existed, I won't miss her. She'll disappear back into her tomb until Brendan Fraser finds her, embalmed with her middle finger extended. By then she'll be ready to do the Super Bowl show again with the equally-embalmed Madonna. Maybe I can dance with them? Don't worry--I'll keep my shirt on.