Long-Lost Friends

I woke up one morning to discover all my friends were dead. Okay, maybe not all my friends, but three of my very best. Granted, I haven’t seen them for decades, yet it still hit me like a bad phone call in the middle of the night; all three of my best childhood friends were dead. And it made me sad. None of them would ever be able to get together with me to share stories and reminisce. I could never reach them by phone or meet up for a drink after a class reunion, nor would any of them ever be available to friend on Facebook.

I had three best buddies growing up. My very first was Dennis Beiter.

Dennis and Me
Dennis and me, August 1966

Dennis and I became fast friends in 1964 when my family moved two doors up the road from him. I was five; son of a Baptist preacher and Dennis, one year my senior, was the son of a Catholic grocer.

My 50-year-old memories of Dennis picture him as a freckle-faced kid with big front teeth and sandy colored hair who typically wore nothing but a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans to play in; and he was always up for an adventure.

We spent most of our days riding our bikes up and down Heinz Road, seeing how far we could coast with no hands. Sometimes we made it for what seemed like miles. But one time I recall only making it to his driveway before I wiped out, planting my face into the fresh tar and gravel.

When we weren’t on our bikes, we were playing in the woods across the road. We enjoyed turning over rocks, looking for bugs and skipping stones in the pond. We were known to spend hours out there, until finally, one of us either wet our pants (usually me) or we thought we heard the mysterious bobcat our big brothers swore lived in those woods.

When the weather was bad, we were in his basement doing what all little boys did in the mid-sixties. We pretended to be the Beatles. (Okay, maybe that’s not typical). At the top of our lungs, we would belt out, “I wanna hold your hand,” while strumming air guitars atop an old kitchen table.

It was your typical 1960’s basement with concrete floor and walls furnished with boxes and worn-out furniture. I remember next to the table was an antiquated refrigerator that I couldn’t help but peak inside any time we were down there. Mainly because it contained things I’d never seen before; things, such as bottles of beer (one would never find that in a Baptist preacher’s fridge) or freshly skinned squirrel carcasses hanging there with their furry tails still intact.

It was in his basement where I had my most traumatic childhood experience. Dennis wanted to show me the giant battleship he’d received for Christmas. We ran downstairs to check it out, but it wasn’t long before we got tired of the battleship and turned our attention to the empty box it had come in. It was long and narrow, with both ends kicked out. My buddy was the first to try it on. He slipped it over his head with his arms out in front, flailing about like the robot from Lost in Space, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”

It was my turn next. I squeezed into the box and began to shuffle around like a robot when suddenly; I lost my footing and began to fall forward. Because I was confined in that narrow box I was unable to put one foot forward to catch myself and instead began to tip over. That’s when I caught a glimpse of the window leaning up against the wall. As I fell towards it, I must have instinctively covered my face with my left arm and down I crashed, glass shattering all around me, piercing my forehead and slashing a deep gash into my left arm just above the elbow. I remember the blood. Lots and lots of blood. And Dennis’s dad rushing me to my house and my sister crying and my grandma wrapping my arm in a dish towel and then calling my dad to come home and take me to the hospital. It was all so very exciting.

It’s been fifty years since that day. And fifty years since I saw my best friend, Dennis. We moved shortly after that and I never saw him again. But I did call him one time in early 2003. I remember thinking how strange he sounded with his deep bass voice, instead of that six-year-old with whom I had shared so many adventures. We had a great visit over the phone, reminiscing about the old days and our childhood shenanigans and we promised to keep in touch, but of course life moved on and we never spoke again. I heard from his sister recently that he died from esophageal cancer on April 1, 2013.

Dennis was my first best friend. I don’t remember ever quarreling or competing with him. (Except when we argued over who got to be Paul and who had to be John). We both just simply enjoyed playing together and having a good time. Isn’t that what friends are for?

Seventh Grade Terror

When I was in seventh grade, terror for me was spelled P.E. I found very little use for being physically educated. But because of some ungodly school policy, all of us were required to take gym, which back in those days (early 70’s) meant The Trio of Terror - gang showers, jock straps and dodgeball.

For those of you who never experienced this maniacally sick and twisted rite of passage (or you have spent your life trying to erase it from your memory), let me enlighten you for a moment. If you know anything about seventh grade boys, you know they come in all shapes and sizes. They are just beginning to hit puberty with the exception of one or two guys on either end of the spectrum. There’s always some poor kid who looks like he just finished first grade, while his locker partner could be mistaken for a high school graduate. I was neither, although I would have certainly been more comfortable sharing a locker with the first grader than Mr. Jock with the armpit hair.

Boys measured each other up both in P.E. and in the locker room. There was a ranking system based on athletic ability and physical development. This did not bode well for yours truly. I was truly a fish out of water, yet forced to join in every humiliating activity.

Dodgeball was one of the worst. Getting your head, stomach, or lower regions whacked with a red rubber ball by the likes of Mr. Jock could ruin your entire day. The most merciful thing I knew to do was to throw myself in front of the first grader’s volley and take the hit like a man. This, of course, allowed me to sit out for the rest of the game.

But on one occasion, the universe shifted as planets aligned in one massive uber-eclipse and I found myself the last man standing on my side of the gym, while all my teammates watched and cheered from the sideline. On the other side of the gym was my nemesis and P.E. enemy, Mr. Jock.

I was filled with mixed emotions to say the least. As Goliath stood there staring at me under those Philistine eyebrows, tossing the red rubber ball in the air, just waiting for the right time to attack, I can remember thinking, “Wow, I actually made it this far! Yes, I’m about to die, but at least I outlasted my team mates for a few brief glorious moments.”

So now, I’m sure you’re waiting with baited breath, wondering what happened next. But to tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure. I really can’t remember. Maybe it’s because part of me was so ecstatic about making it that far, everything else is just a blur. It’s also possible that the trauma of getting my head pummeled by Mr. Jock’s signature move, the Exploder, gave me a bad case of selective memory. But I’m pretty sure what actually happened was rather anti-climatic. I believe I actually tried to catch his ball only to have it bounce free, leaving me with nothing but bright red marks on my forearms, which of course I wore like a badge of honor back in the locker room.

So here’s the moral of this story: When life hands you one brief moment of glory in the midst of your otherwise terrifying life, don’t miss it, don’t dismiss it, and by all means, don’t forget it. Celebrate it.

 

Standing Out in a Crowd

Crowds – I love being in them, except when I don’t. I mean, I love being where the action is, unless the action isn’t what I’m into at the moment, then I long for solitude. The crowded streets of New York City energize me, but when my feet get sore and my body gets tired, nothing feels better than walking into a quiet hotel room.

This morning in my Bible reading, Psalm 107:7 said, “He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle.” In the Old Testament time, a city was a refuge from the wilderness. A city was where you found safety and security. Finding yourself isolated in the desert was usually a death sentence. But today, for many of us in 21st century affluent suburbia, the city represents the opposite: crowds, crime and poverty. A crowded city is the last place we would want to settle.

Then I read from Matthew 9:35-36, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus had compassion on the crowd.

Rarely do I experience compassion in a crowd. When I’m trying to get somewhere, a crowded highway brings out rage in me, not compassion. It’s only when I stop and realize that little old lady driving 55 in the left lane of I-64 could be somebody’s sweet grandma, then my compassion can finally start to rise in me. I have to put a face on someone in the crowd for me to find compassion. But Jesus had compassion on the crowd.

I believe Jesus had compassion on them because he saw the individual faces within the crowd. He knew their stories and backgrounds, that they were harassed and lost. He knew his purpose was to redeem them and to give them hope and a future.

So I’m going to try and stop painting crowds with a broad brush. I’m going to try and remember the crowd is made up of individuals whom God loves. Whether it’s a crowd of democrats, republicans, atheists, Christians, Muslims, gays, Mormons, unions, Catholics, you-name-it, they’re all individuals for whom Christ had compassion. So much compassion that he was willing to die on a cross. The least I can do is to get to know them as individuals instead of judging them as a faceless crowd.

Herding Cats Through the Streets of New York City

Every year I lead a mission trip to New York City. And every year, we have an incredible experience. We serve the Lower Manhattan Community Church in the Battery Park City/Tribeca area of Manhattan as well as help out at the World Vision Storehouse in the Bronx. Our friends at both ministries are a joy to work with. We are blessed to have such wonderful ministry partners. They are making a difference in the Kingdom work in New York City.

But I feel the need to whine share about the great challenge I face each and every year when leading this mission trip. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “herding cats,” well, that’s exactly what I have to do with my team through the streets of New York.

Last week our team was invited to Ryan and Brittany Holladay’s place for dinner. Ryan is the Pastor at LMCC. We left the hotel together, walking the half block to the subway station in order to catch the R train to Brooklyn. I led the way, walking at the same pace as most of the senior citizen’s of New York. The other male in our group of eight was at my side. As I turned to head down the stairs, I looked up and saw one of the women on our team following close behind. We made eye contact, so I continued my descent into the bowels of the subway system and proceeded through the turn style.  And there I waited…and waited…and waited. Finally, I saw my wife’s beautiful face appear on the subway steps. Her expression showed a sense of relief as well as a desire for revenge all at the same time. I smiled and waved. She ran and got the other wandering missionaries and then joined the rest of us on the subway platform.

I apologized, or at least I thought about it, and then we made our way to a wonderful evening of food and laughter. I realize I’m writing this at my own peril, but I thought it would be fun to theologize about it on my blog. Now I’m quite certain that some of the team members will come up with a totally different interpretation, so I invite them to share their honest, yet grace-filled thoughts in the comment section below.

Here’s my take: We are all on a journey in a strange land. We love the land but we realize we are not natives, we are aliens. And as aliens, we realize we need direction on our journey or else we will lose our way. So we must always keep our eye on our leader for we know he is just up ahead, leading us to a destination where there will be a celebration banquet filled with joy and community. BUT, if we get distracted, if we don’t pay attention, if we get too involved in our own little conversations or we become preoccupied with all the strange people and sights, we run the risk of missing the train. And that wouldn’t be good.

Big Grandma: Little Grandma

I suppose since both of my grandmothers have passed, I can now safely confess my nicknames for both of them. As a kid, I thought of them as “Big Grandma” and “Little Grandma.” I only told Little Grandma about my secret nicknames, since I figured she’d be okay with it. But I never got around to telling Big Grandma.

My Grandma Wideman was Big Grandma. She was soft and fluffy. I remember getting rocked by her as a small child. Why this stands out to me, is because it wasn’t in a rocking chair. Big Grandma could rock with the best of them, no rocker required. Snuggling up against her was like being enveloped in love. She loved through her hands, whether it was a caress or a swat, you knew it was all love. She ministered to her kids and grandbabies whenever there was a fever or upset stomach; Big Grandma always knew what to do.

Then came the time when Big Grandma was the one that got ill. Parkinson’s ravished her body as she slowly deteriorated through the last decade of her life. Big Grandma became tiny grandma, frail and dependent on those whom she had served and loved. Big Grandma showed Big Love to everyone she knew, no matter their size or stature.

Little Grandma was a farmer’s wife. She gardened, took care of the chickens, fed table scraps to stray animals, and had breakfast, lunch and dinner on the table everyday right on schedule, unless Grandpa had a hankerin’ for a burger in town. She would cook up a spread fit for her king and then dine like a pauper to keep her beauty queen figure. She was stylish with matching purse and heels every Sunday at church where she took her place at the organ. She taught all her children and grandkids to love music and play the piano. She ministered to her kids and grandbabies by taking pictures and filming home movies.

Little Grandma lived a long, healthy life, I suppose from eating all that organic food she grew on the farm. But then at the age of 91, she was ready to join her husband and family who had gone before her. She was dressed in her finest, her hair beautifully coiffed and she was happy to go Home.

 

 

Grandpa: Truck Driver

My truck-driving grandpa lived life the same way he smoked his Lucky Strikes, unfiltered.

He died a month before my fifth birthday. It was the first time I learned smoking could kill you. It seemed everyone was just discovering this in 1963.

Before the cancer, he was a husband, father and grandfather. Most everyone respected him, or should I say, they feared him. I was too young to really fear him as much as just awe him.

While I don’t remember any conversation I ever had with him, I do recall family times together. He would greet his grandkids with a smile and a tousle of the hair, that would last as long as we behaved. But as soon as we got too loud or out of control, the bad mood would start. As a small child I was able to recognize how the climate changed in the house whenever he was around.

He kept his teeth in a glass and smelled of Absorbine Jr. His ears stuck out like the opened doors of his 1949 Carryall-Suburban.

As I got older, my dad and his six siblings told stories about grandpa that made the hair stand at attention on the back of my neck. Stories of a different man than I ever knew.

While I didn’t know him well, this is what I do know about my grandpa, the truck driver. He was smart enough to marry Kate, who birthed him seven great kids and kept them clothed, fed and generally healthy during the Great Depression and WWII. He was blessed to have three sons become preachers and two more become deacons, in spite of the fact he never once took them to church. He had two beautiful daughters who grew up to be strong and loving wives and mothers who could spin great stories and make everyone feel loved and accepted.

Grandpa was a flawed man with very little to his name, yet he still recognized the importance and value of family. While it’s true we may pass on some of the sins of the father, let’s not forget, we can also pass on some of the blessings as well. That’s a lesson every grandpa needs to learn.

Grandpa: Farmer

My grandpa was part of the last generation of great American farmers, before they went all soft and high-tech. He and his wife, Gert reared four strong and handsome children on their family farm. A sanctuary of rolling hills and river bluffs in the Mississippi river bottom he and his brother cleared off with an axe, a saw and their four calloused hands. A six-room house built with hand-honed bricks made from the sand out of the creek running through their lower pasture. The red dairy barn covered in tin-roofing, flanked by a sentinel stone silo  and surrounded by a family of mismatched  stone and frame sheds and well-houses.

Through the eyes of his admiring grandson, I thought the farm was as much a part of him, as grandma was. They all went together. Their own sacred trinity.

Grandpa was a weathered old barn, always open to friends, as well as a variety of stray animals and hobos walking the tracks down by the river. He was a massive old silo that stood strong as he weathered floods and droughts through years of changing seasons. Grandpa was formed out of the same sandy soil that provided the home for his family; a fortress against the elements and evil of his day. He was honed and chiseled by Life, bearing the scars and marks that only served to make him stronger.

Grandpa also had his soft side as well. Whether it was his twanging out love songs to his sweetheart while driving into town for an ice cream, or letting his granddaughters give him a makeover and pedicure, he was always a gentle touch with his girls. He was a man of faith, who prayed for rain to fall and floodwaters to recede and taught the men’s Sunday School class for several decades at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.

Today, as a grandpa myself, I see the old man looking back at me while I shave. I see his wrinkles and scars, his same thinning hair and expanding belly. I pray I will see the same godly qualities as well.

The Church’s Worst Nightmare

So I had this dream. Actually, it was more of a nightmare. While most of my dreams are easily forgotten by the time I shower and shave in the morning, this dream has stuck with me.

I dreamed that I was asleep in bed, which in and of itself is kinda weird. Dreaming about being in bed sleeping is like having an out-of-body experience. What was even weirder, the bed was in the middle of a church sanctuary filled with people singing.

Realizing where I was, I quickly pulled the covers over my head and tried to appear invisible to the congregation. The next thing I knew, an angry usher walked up and pulled back the covers, revealing me in all my humiliation. The congregation gasped while the parent’s covered their children’s eyes, protecting them from the scene of an underwear-clad man slinking out of the top bunk bed in the middle of church.

I quickly ran down the aisle, through the foyer and on to the parking lot to find my car. Everyone followed me out the door, yelling at me to leave, as I frantically searched for my car keys. Mercifully, I woke up just at the moment I realized underwear don’t have pockets.

When I came back to reality and realized it had only been a dream, I sighed in relief. As the cobwebs dissolved in my foggy brain, I began to process my dream and see if I could come up with an interpretation of what I had just experienced.

I cannot tell you how frightened I felt being exposed like that in the middle of church. It’s bad enough for anyone to get caught falling asleep in church, but it’s really bad for me as a worship leader, to be asleep during the one hour when I’m supposed to be on the platform leading. To top it off, I was in my underwear, exposed in front of the entire congregation.

Nothing makes me feel more vulnerable than exposing my inner-self to other people, to strip naked emotionally and admit I have broken bones underneath my thick hide. So imagine what it must be like for someone to come to church thinking it’s a safe place to be real, but instead once they reveal their struggle only to experience condemnation or indifference from everyone.

All of us need a safe place to be real. We all need to be encouraged to take off the mask, and yes, at times to even strip naked. We are all broken people seeking freedom from our hurts, habits and hang ups, but that will never happen if we can’t even admit to one another that we have them.

“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible – and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

‘Wake up sleeper;

rise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you.’”        Ephesians 5:13-14

Imagine a day when the church becomes a safe place where we can expose our brokenness to the Light, and in turn, God then uses our brokenness as a light for others. That’s my dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Full House on a Vacant Lot

The two-story red brick house looked as if it could have been on the parade of homes back in the day; back before the blacks ran the white folks out of the neighborhood. Well, maybe they didn’t run them out, as much as they just moved next door. The white folks were the ones who ran. The house sat alone surrounded by acres of vacant lots and empty malt liquor bottles.

Brother Ken met me at the door. His hands were wet, or maybe sweaty, perhaps both.  He welcomed me to the “hood” and laughed. His jubilance reverberated against the abandoned townhouses across the street.

“The ladies are fixin’ a spread, sure hope you’re hungry,” he said loudly with a big smile revealing a wide dark gap in his front teeth.

We stood on what used to be a front porch and got better acquainted. The gentle giant proudly proclaimed his thirty years of sobriety and his calling to this neighborhood. He turned to greet a man and his small son walking through the vacant lot next door. The lad was having a hard time keeping up with his dad as his oversized shoes kept coming off. The man set down the bottle he was carrying in a brown paper sack and bragged to us about having thirteen children. Brother Ken swooned and hollered from that revelation, then invited him to their next meeting.

Brother Ken’s ministry in the hood is in my city, but it seems light years away from my suburban sanctuary. Yet are we really that different? We both minister to broken people with addictions who struggle with broken relationships and broken dreams. The only difference is my community has more resources to live in denial longer than my brother’s.

Lost Along the Way

It was first called “the Way.” Followers of Jesus Christ were to be travelers on a faith journey; sojourners on a long hike. But today, many of us live as if it was called “the Stay.” We’ve become permanent residents of steepled fortresses filled with cushy pews and hard heads.

This faith journey implies we are moving forward toward a certain destination, but we haven’t arrived there yet. Unfortunately, many of us act as if we have already arrived. We have all the answers. We have unpacked our bags and settled in. The only problem is, if you really think you’ve arrived, that means you’re dead.

Some of us have focused exclusively on our destination. We have become spiritual ladder climbers, stepping over dead bodies on our ascent to the Welcome party.  “This world is not my home, I’m only passing through,” so there’s no need to be distracted by the beggar or the child who lost her way. No need to pick up the litter. What’s the point, anyway? Besides, it might delay our arrival.

Some of us have pitched our tent at the edge of the Grand Canyon, but are so busy reading a book about the Grand Canyon inside the tent; we have missed out on the real thing.

Some of us are still at the trail head studying the map.

Some of us are arguing about which version of the map is correct.

Some of us are so angry we’ve decided to blaze a new trail to our final destination.

Some of us are arguing over who gets to even go on this faith journey.

Some tour guides have quit because their groups argued the entire way. Others were fired because they were walking too fast, or too slow, or with an annoying limp.

Some of us can’t seem to get along with many of our fellow travelers, so we’ve become lone rangers.

The point I’m trying to make is, if it’s not obvious enough for you, all of us are on a faith journey and our final destination will not be fully revealed until we pass from this life into the next.  So wouldn’t it be better to focus on the journey more than the destination? Wouldn’t it be better to enjoy the trip? Wouldn’t it be better to be encouragers to our fellow travelers instead of acting like children fighting in the backseat of the car?