Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Values Part 5

"Well, brother Matt, you sure have put a wrinkle in my stocking with all these Christmas posts-- extolling the Grinch and leaving poor plastic Nativity camels to fend for themselves and the like-- but you've been a little evasive on what you really think about the whole season. . ."

True enough, I've held back some cards for here on Christmas eve when visions of sugar plums are dancing through your head. . .

Wait. What's a sugar plum and when's the last time anyone's had one?

I have visions of many delicious holiday foods and on occasion have made them get down a bit in my head, but sugar plums have never made the soul train of my mind's appetite. . .

It's funny how many things surrounding Christmas time are slightly odd. . .

We cut down trees and put them in our homes and put lights on them. Or we get a plastic tree out of our garage and assemble it. . .

We hang over-sized socks from our mantels. And use the myth of an obese man in pimp clothes invading our homes as a deterrent to naughty behavior. . .

And how about those weird Christmas lyrics?

When's the last time you roasted chestnuts? Or brought corn over to someone's house "for popping"?
Have you ever staged a protest at a holiday party. . .that you weren't going to leave until you got some figgy pudding? And everyone pretends their Snowman is Frosty. . .I don't know who this upstart Parson Brown is. . .

I'd love to deck your hall but I'm all out of holly. I dropped it and ran when I say saw eight maids a milkin' and ten lords a leapin'. It was a bit disconcerting.

Many of our traditions and songs come from a different era with different cultural icons attached to the Christmas holiday. . .(back to this in a moment)

Much of the talk I hear during this season is about making sure we remember the true meaning of Christmas. . .and by the way it is said, it indicates that anything that isn't about baby Jesus in a manger is not the true meaning of Christmas. . .the "everything else" of Christmas is "in the way".

What if the other stuff doesn't have to be "in the way"? What if the figgy pudding, wrapping paper, and awkwardly placed mistletoe can be a part of the "true meaning" of Christmas?

Some words from the esteemed Englishman Clive Staples Lewis:
There is a stage in a child's life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began 'Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.' This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.

Lewis makes the case we can find the spiritual in the festal, if we put the spiritual first. . .but if we do not put it first: everything takes on a withering (and I would say cynical and hopeless) life. . .

When we live under the gracious and loving rule of Jesus as Lord, we are living IN the Kingdom of God. . .and as we do that, we can, if we allow ourselves to respond this way, find the beauty and goodness in things and persons all around us.

We can delight in well-wrapped gifts and perfectly baked snickerdoodles and the squealing laughter of children when they unwrap the gift you said was too expensive or not worth it. . .

When we live in response to the Spirit's rule in our lives we begin to get our Garden of Eden eyes back. . .and as we do, we can see the wonderful and worshipful all around us in this Creation in which we have been placed. . .

So back to our earlier thoughts on Christmas traditions: What do they mean to you?

Are gifts acts of love? Or signs that we all have bowed down to the capitalist greed machine?

But, but, Matt did you know one time a tree symbolized this and that?

Does it now? My tree reminds me of all that is good in this season and all the nostalgic delight of what I experienced as a child.

People used to say "God bless you!" after you sneezed because they thought a demon had been expelled from the body! But it's not what it means now right?

Left-handed people were considered Devil's spawn at one point. . .but not so now.

We change meanings all the time by our motives and by the values we personally attach to things. And Christ the infant King is The Meaning Changer and the Value Bringer, The Gift Giver and the Grand Celebrator.

I don't even know what figgy pudding is but I have my own "figgy puddings" in which I can delight, and be like the small boy shaking those chocolate eggs. . .because I follow Christ and His ways. . .

Christians, we are the Feast-ers! The Extravagant lovers! The ones who can always find Jubilee in defiance of the darkness. The ones who can find Christ in the chocolate. Delight in the meaning of Christmas among you, because Immanuel has come. . .and His coming that first Christmas signaled the inauguration of a Kingdom that will culminate in an eternal Wedding feast!

So drink up the egg nog to the glory of God! Wear that tacky sweater for the Kingdom! Carve up the roast beast! And sing whatever songs bring you joy. . .even if their original meanings escape you! In doing so, you echo the true meaning of Christmas and are the harbingers of the Kingdom to come.

And if the esteemed Englishman CS Lewis is not your cup of earl grey tea, or my blog today did not make you don your gay apparel. . . perhaps the esteemed Englishman Mr. Bean will grant you some Christmas insight. . .

Grace and Peace to you.

Matt O.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday Values Part 4

The Parable of the Missing Butter

I had been working on my chocolate chip cookie recipe through many batches and manifestations and finally felt I had arrived at the perfect cookie, the right ingredients in proper amounts, an oven heated to an exact temperature, and a timed amount of baking on a certain pan of specific thickness.

I had been baking all morning--for company was coming in the evening, the kind of company who knows their cookies. . .so I double checked each step, meticulously hovering over ever dollop of dough placed and every spatula swipe of cooled but still warm confections.

I was removing the final pan from the oven when my wife burst into the kitchen--she was agitated with some news of great import, I could tell, yet when she saw me amongst my sea of perfect cookies, she paused---

"What is it?" said I.

"Oh dearest," said she, "The cookies! Have you tried them?"

"I was waiting on you my darling!" said I, "You ask as if something is amiss!"

"It is! THEY have struck again, my charming chef! THEY have passed a law that no baked cookies may have butter in them!"

"Nooooo! How could THEY!?"

We both dashed to the counter of cooling cookies and each grabbed a scrumptious disc of culinary perfection, placed them in our mouths, and. . .and. . .

NO BUTTER!!! NOOOOOooooooo!!

How could THEY?? I remember clearly placing the sticks of softened butter into the bowl, it should be impossible for them to remove the butter once it's in the dough. . .how could THEY do that??

The answer is. . .THEY can't. If the butter is really in the cookie dough, then there is no way THEY can take the butter out of the batch.

"THEY" can't take the "Christ" out of Christmas either. . .anymore than "THEY" can take the butter out of cookie dough made in your kitchen. . .or take "prayer" out of schools.


Yep. If the prayer is really in your kids, then prayer will be in their schools. If you put the butter in, it'll be there no matter what. . .

But I have a little secret for you: I do know who can take "Christ" out of Christmas. . .

THE DEVIL!!!!!!!

Ha, nope.


That's right. . .you can take the Christ out of Christmas.

When we complain and whine through the season. . .
When we attack "THEM" for doing exactly what someone would do who doesn't know Christ. . .
When we are selfish, greedy, materialistic, impatient, unforgiving (with our relatives?), uncaring, argumentative, and smugly arrogant.

We can take the Christ out of Christmas.

Not THEM, not Hollywood, not Wall Street, not Liberal Media, and not even Wal-Mart. . .
We are the ones who can take the butter out of the cookies, because we're the ones in the kitchen.

So Matt, you're not bothered about the phrase Happy Holidays or Nativity Scenes disappearing?

Nope. Not one bit.

If the Nativity isn't in your heart, then cheap plastic light-up poorly made in China manger scenes (and biblically inaccurate I might add) aren't going to do anything to "win the community for Christ".

In fact:
Our job isn't to legislate into existence a Christian society, our calling is to demonstrate a Christ is the King community.

And I'm about to go all Grinch on you again (yes, in back-to-back posts!):
The Grinch did a whole lot more than change the name of Christmas--he took it all: trees, gifts, lights, roast beast and even the last ever-loving crumb from the last little mouse. And he didn't stop Christmas at all. . .not at all!!

You know how you stop "THEY" and "THEM"? You show THEM what a Christ-filled Christmas really is. . .even if they take the Baby Jesus ornaments off the tree in your own living room. . .you show them what Christ does:
He didn't whine when He was on the cross, when He was afflicted, mocked, ridiculed, naked and beaten. . .He said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. . ."

How did "THEY" handle that? THEY didn't. . .and THEY still can't. . .

And when the Whos down in Whoville didn't blink at what THEY had done to Christmas but decided to have them some Christmas anyways. . .what happened to THEY's heart? It burst out of its shriveled condition and grew three sizes that day. . .

So, enough says I. . .

Come on Whos, rise up and have a Christ-filled Christmas no matter what THEY do and let's make some hearts blow out some rib-cages. . .

Our cookies are good. Period.

Matt O.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Values Part 3

I went through a pretty severe disillusionment with the Christmas season, mocking traditions, cynically declaring everyone to be consumerist drones, and pointing out to anyone who listened how Santa was eerily close in spelling to Satan, a coincidence I thought was intentional.

I had become Mr. Grinch, and although I felt my "spiritual" reasons allowed me to be a stink-stank-stunk kind of guy--I began to realize something was wrong in my heart. . .

"You're a rotter, Mr. Grinch!
You're the king of sinful sots!
Your heart's a dead tomato,
Splotched with moldy, purple spots,
Mr. Grinch!
Your soul is an apalling dump-heap,
Overflowing with the most disgraceful
assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,
Mangled-up in tangled-up knots!"

 That's not my favorite verse in the song but the one which accurately describes the negative knot of anger and judgment I'd been brewing for several years. . .to bring in another Christmas icon, I was Ebenezer Scrooge and my "Bah! Humbug!" was potent and freely given. . .

"But Matt, I'm with you, everyone's spending all this money and making Christmas about stuff! It's horrible!"

But don't we say Christmas is about the best gift of all? And that's why we give gifts?
So, how do we acquire gifts?

"Well, ideally, we'd make something."

But friend, not everyone can make something. . .and even those who do-- pay for the materials they use to make said products. The amount of people making gifts for others using only raw materials they produced from their own land is a small percent of a percent.

To give gifts to those you love requires, for the vast majority of us, buying something.

Is it wrong to buy gifts for others? I do not think so. In fact, I don't think it's wrong to buy extravagant gifts sometimes. . .perhaps you remember this story from the life of Jesus. . .

Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. (Mark 14, the Message)

A gift given. . .
seemingly wasted. . .
so expensive it cost a year's wages. . .
the poor neglected. . .
. . .and Jesus blesses the giving of the gift. In the Luke recounting of the story, Jesus conveys she gave this gift out of gratitude and affection.

And on top of it all. . .it was perfume!! Perfume? A bottle of perfume worth my yearly salary? Are you kidding me? It's hard for me to think a plastic toy which costs $50 (outrageous!) is more wasteful than smelly liquid so expensive it could support my family for a year. . .

"Why are you baking those cookies?! You could use those hours serving in a soup kitchen! In fact, why are you even sleeping! You could be knitting socks for orphans in Africa right now!"

We can easily spiral out of control and become incredibly unhealthy when asking questions about gifts and Christmas and time. . .

The important question is: am I giving gifts in love this Christmas?
Sometimes love is sacrificial and extravagant and ridiculous. . .and those kinds of gifts are the best.

I'm not being the Anti-Dave Ramsey here and telling you to go into debt and buy your spouse the surprise Lexus (heck, most of us would go into debt just buying the red bow on that Lexus) nor am I being Mr. Support Sweat Factories By Buying Foreign Toys. . .don't hear me with your Grinch ears. . .
Jesus says our Heavenly Father know how to give us good gifts, but He says it right after He affirms that we know how to give good gifts to our children. . .I don't know if you've seen His endorsement for loving and blessing your kids there in that passage but I do. . .

God wasn't satisfied to just give us laws from Sinai or to just wipe our slates clean of our eternal debts. . .John says he lavished us with love and called us His children. Lavish. I like to say He smothered and covered us with His love. . .and here's another thought: as He bankrupted heaven for our adoption--there's millions of people who reject the gift and choose instead to play with the wrapping paper and cardboard boxes of this world. . .and He knew that would happen but He gave anyways. . .and He is still giving today. . .was God wasteful?

"But, but, Matt! You're being awful gracious--there's tons of greed, gluttony, selfishness, ignorance, and jealousy at Christmas that must be addressed!"

Ah, friend, those things aren't just present at Christmas, those are year round commodities, we Grinches just like to shine a light on it once a year. . .if we were really concerned about their pervasive presence we'd stand against them consistently and not just vocally during the Happy Holidays. . .

"Wait, you said Happy Holidays, are you one of them?!?"

Maybe. . .but you'll have to wait for Holiday Values Part 4 to find out. . .muhahahahaha.

Matt O.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Values Part 2

(Disclaimer: I'm about to write about family memories of Christmas gifts for kids. This blog is not an endorsement or value statement about how many gifts we should buy, how much money we should spend, materialism, etc. I will try to address the "consumerism of Christmas" a bit next week with Holiday Values Part 3. . .and now, on to our regularly scheduled blog. . .)

My parents did a great job balancing out the gifts between their three children every Christmas. If you had brothers or sisters, you know what "balancing out the gifts" means. . .

It means after the seven minutes it takes for child hands to shred open all those meticulously wrapped gifts and everyone is surrounded by Christmas morning shrapnel that when each child looks at their plunder and compares it to the plunder received by their siblings they think one of two things to themselves:
"I feel OK with the distribution of wealth in this place" OR
"I made out like a bandit. I'm clearly the winner this morning."

If parents can get each of their kids to think the kid version of one of those two statements then the gifts were officially balanced.

It is an art form and one my mom was brilliant at, because it's not just about the volume of gifts, it's about knowing how each kid ticks and what they really want. Mom would make sure we each got a "big gift"or a "cornerstone gift" as I like to think about it, and then filled in the rest of the haul with a deft combination of toys we wanted (GI Joe and Star Wars figures) and some stuff we needed (underwear and socks). The trick too was that if Mom knew she wasn't going to get you everything on the list to get the items that would joyously counteract and dismiss any temporal disappointment you may have at not getting the previously desired item. . .

I remember the only time when I did have a little discontentment, albeit very briefly.

My brother and I were already merging our menagerie of figures and vehicles into one grand storyline--the GI Joe jeep full of brand new characters driving up to the Ewok Village--and were busy determining who who would be the "good guys" and who would be the "bad guys" in today's exciting episode when I glance over at my little sister's treasure trove. . .

It was the year she got the Play Kitchen, you know the walk-in play kitchen with the oven that opened, cupboards filled with dishes and a vast supply of plastic groceries? My eyes went from her kitchen to our battlefield and I began to run some brief plastic to plastic comparisons and ratios and quickly realized how much more gift volume-wise she had received.

Here my brother and I were playing with a little world and there she was playing in a world. I almost got up and went over and asked if I could put the pretend muffin tray in the oven but then I remembered Han Solo and Road Block needed to put the hurting on The Emperor and Destro and my momentary pang of plastic envy receded. . .(the names in orange are links and are worth a click)

Unfortunately for many of us, we never get over the Plastic Walk-In Kitchen Envy I felt there for a few moments. . .we spend many days locked in mental bitterness that our plastic-to-plastic ratio is not fair or not what we wanted. During the Christmas season, it can be easy for our jealous eyes to lock onto the "perfect scenarios" that others have. . .from their income, to their families, to their traditions, to their seemingly drama free lives. . .

How do we combat this mentality?

I offer two brief thoughts:
1. Remember your Heavenly Father is way better than my mom at giving us what we need (and sometimes what we want!) and allowing us to know His goodness through His gifts. Gifts not made of temporary plastic but of more rich substance, the eternal elements of love, joy, peace, and hope.

2. After we three Orth children opened and played with our gifts for a while, we would pile up in the car and go to Grandma and Pappy Orth's house (of The Grandma Loop fame). The cool part was we could take our favorite toys with us and play with them there! So the gripping saga my brother and I had devised could go with us in the car. . .but guess what couldn't go with us? A big old honkin' plastic kitchen! When you look at others who "have it all" remember there is always more to their situation than meets the eye. . .more issues involved than just the illusion you see of the perfect life.

I'll leave you with Eugene Peterson's translation of Paul's concluding words to the church at Philippi:
I'm just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I've found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.

Matt O.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Holiday Values Part 1

Since debating ferociously about politics has become so passe, let's stir the pot with a bold subjective statement that I will declare as fact. . .

If you were a boy growing up in the 1980s, you grew up in the Golden Era of toys and every other era shrivels in jealousy at the glory of your majesty. . .

If this is a debate, I will make my opening three points:

Original Star Wars. Original GI Joe. Original Transformers.

Throw in the powerful sub-points of Masters of the Universe (He-Man), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron, and Original Thundercats as well. (These 4 alone could stomp on the heads of every Pokemon and Yugioh character every fashioned by a fourteen year old Japanese Animator)

What's that ladies? You thought I was an egalitarian type blogger? You're right, I am..  .feel free to claim the above toys as your own as well. . .and although it's not my main argument I'll make a few brief points for your traditional case as well. . .

Cabbage Patch Kids. Strawberry Shortcake. Care Bears. My Little Ponies. (I'd love to see a herd of stampeding My Little Ponies take care of a few Furrbies.)

OK, OK, We hear you Matt O! Any closing arguments?

Rubik's Cube and Original Nintendo? I rest my case.

Did pride well up in you if you grew up in that era and played with those toys? Post-80s readers, did the spirit of debate raise its head to defend your toys?

We are quick to defend what we value. . .no more so than when defending cultural items of nostalgia. . .or our favorite bands, movies, or sports teams.

This Christmas season. . .what do you value? What have you placed supreme importance on?
What are you defending. . .in your actions or in your mind?

Expectations of the perfect holiday or perfect meal? Pleasing other people? The dream of having a stress-free zone? The opportunity to splurge and get what you want? Your right to judge the holiday and other people as materialistic? Your one season of Gluttony (ouch)?

One of the great parts of the Kingdom of God is that Christians are not called to defend it but to be a witness to it as we live in its truth, justice, grace, joy, peace and love.

May we manifest these values first and foremost this season, and may we lay down the inner stresses and conflicts created by defending temporary and immediate values destined to fade. . .like once treasured toys discarded and forgotten in a closet, waiting to be packed in a cardboard box and given away. . .

(Unless of course, you have an original Millennium Falcon in the package. . .you can still gloat about that a little bit. . .)

Holiday Values Part 2 on Friday. . .

Matt O.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Vomit & Victory

Hello, my name is Matt and I'm a people watcher. I don't know when it started but there's no doubt I am addicted to people-watching. Addicted isn't even the right word--it implies some awareness of an unhealthy habit that can be broken--my people watching is more like breathing, an involuntary act woven into my daily natural rhythms. . .

One of my favorite things to observe is parenting (NOTE: I said observe and not judge. Although I make observations, I am not judging most of the time. The only perfect parents are those with no kids.) I love the spectrum of techniques and tricks, graces and disciplines that exist among parents and their wonderfully unique kids. . .

They dropped their pacifier! Do you. . .
A. Get out the Haz-Mat suit, pick it up with tongs, and send it off to the dry cleaners? Or
B. Put some extra dirt & hair on it and pop it back into their mouths to build up their immune system?

They just purposefully pulled the plant off the table which has crashed into a pile of pottery shards and dirt onto your floor. Do you. . .
A. Grab their one wrist and hold it above their heads and try to swat their bottom as they wail and spin around like a merry-go-round full of demons? OR
B. Look them in the eye and explain their behavior is a root condition of the Fall and they are going to be disciplined now and the purpose of discipline is redemptive behavior which is truly only possible through the sanctifying work of the Spirit which starts with repentance but it has to be sincere because God knows our hearts?

They've done their best to write manuals and provide parenting blogs, etc. but there isn't a once-for-all parenting book that gives the exact blueprint for raising children. . .and even those resources won't help when you're in the heat of a moment when your toddler waddles into the room, proud and smiling, with diaper contents in both hands and smeared on their face. . .

I remember the first time our first daughter, Micah, was old enough and sick enough to require medicine a little more potent than the Standard Issue Red Syrup. We thought she was ready to learn how to swallow a pill. . .

"OK, honey, this is a big person pill, you don't chew this, OK? You take a drink and you swallow it, OK? You just swallow it."

(We tend to say "OK" a lot when we're teaching kids new things.)

She filled her cheeks up with water and kept them poofed out.

"OK, now swallow it!"

She spits it all out into the sink. . ."It tastes terrible!"

"Yes it does, that's why you have to swallow it quickly. It's not that hard, it's just like swallowing. . ."

("A pill" is what I was going to say. . .Swallowing a pill is just like swallowing a pill. . .Arrggh, where's my parenting manual?!?)

"It's like swallowing a penny, remember that time you swallowed a penny?"

"You told me not to do that."

"Yes, yes I did. But now I'm telling you to swallow the pill like the time you swallowed the penny, but I'm not saying you now have a license to start swallowing money again."

Blank stare.

"Do you ever eat food so fast that sometimes you swallow, I don't know, like a piece of macaroni, without chewing it? It's just like that."

"You told me not to do that too."

"Suddenly you remember and are willing to obey everything I've ever told you."
(I can't remember if I thought that or said it out loud.)

Eventually, Team Awesome Parent went to go watch LOST. . .and we left her alone in the bathroom with the "if you want to feel better, you'll swallow that pill" ultimatum. Somehow through the many more projectile spits into the sink and a good half dozen wasted pills she figured out how to gulp it down on her own.  . .

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is where Jesus describes how as imperfect and sinful parents we love our children, giving them the best we can, and not intending to harm them. He then describes how much greater the love and desire to give good gifts is from our Heavenly Father towards us as His children (Matthew 7, Luke 11).

It's such a powerful thought and concept, given to us by Christ Himself. . .that we are loved with a perfect parental love, a divine other-wordly affection and protection. . .a parental love we can only imagine in part as we examine our own imperfect love and care for our kids.

I think about the concept frequently, and I often think of it in the "how much more" way Jesus shared. Recently, a friend of mine had his first real medical situation with his first child, barely a toddler in age. We discussed that hopeless feeling as your kid feels terrible but there's no way to help them understand why things are the way they are. . .we can only offer what comfort we can. You want them to know: you're there for them. . .and one day it will be all better.

The worst is when the kid is throwing up for the first time: the poor thing gives you those puppy dog eyes, pleading with you to explain what's happening, as the vomit just uncontrollably comes from their mouth. . .

"How Much More?" came back to me in the midst of our discussion. . .

Does God (and through our history of development as people, Has God,) had "swallow a pill" moments with us? Moments where we as a people, a culture, or an individual are crying to Him in prayers and puppy dog eyes asking Him why things are the way they are and there just aren't  words for us to comprehend? No perfect analogy to describe it?

I think of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. . .we as God's toddler creations experiencing vomiting sickness (some way worse than others). . .and I picture God as a parent. . .wanting to explain why things are the way they are. . .and knowing there's no way for us to grasp fully what's going on. . .

I'm not trying to solve the problem of evil, or make light of it. . .by no means. But I do know, when I am confronted with the fact a benevolent God exists but yet great and seemingly random suffering exists as well. . .that our God is a parent who cares and comforts even when we receive nothing but silence to our questions of "Why?". He gives us all the answers we can handle and all the comfort He can. . .

I know this because this is the message and hope He's given us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a message we can understand:
God knows the illness and has done something about it. . .and is doing something about it even now and one day will completely and forever do something about it.
In the meantime, His Spirit is with us in the illness. . .individual and indwelling care from the Parent who perhaps wishes they could explain more but knows it is beyond our understanding.

It may not make the vomiting any less painful, but it helps to know our Parent is there for us. . .and one day it will be all better. . .

Matt O.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Grandma Loop

Pete was a gangly Mormon with an easy smile. I was a scrawny late-blooming eighth-grader good at turning that smile into laughter. Our friendship blossomed on the Jr. High track team one spring as we both tried out for the distance team knowing everyone got to run the mile and there would be no cuts.

Each afternoon practice our chiseled coach who doubled as the shop teacher would give us a Xeroxed  map (Today you would say "printed" or "copied") with a hand-drawn line on the roads we were to run. In the upper corner, in perfect all-capitals printing, was the name of the "Loop" for the day's training and its distance. A popular one we received that I remember was the Falling Springs Loop, 4.1 miles. . .and an ungodly amount of hills.

Pete and I ended up running the loops together most days at a pace known as a "slog", a slow jog. It's the pace most of us normal humans run after age 35. . .not like those abnormal jerks out there peeling off a half marathon at a six minute pace when they should be eating dinner at 4:30 pm and watching Judge Judy. . .

It became apparent in my soul at the tender age of thirteen that I was not what people in the biz would call a runner, and so my little mind began to think about other Loops Pete and I could run together. . .

I ran some quick figures and pitched a scheme to Pete. . .

Let's slog away from the school like everyone else except today we'll bring some cash in our pockets and peel away when the pack gets drawn out. . .

. . .and go to Dunkin Donuts. We'll eat a few or eight donuts and pace our return to arrive at our normal mediocre time and also to prevent projectile vomiting. . .

It was a rush, both of adrenaline and sugar, our friendship growing in the way only possible by a shared secret, powdered sugar on our faces as we laughed at the world and Kenyan marathoners and algebra and girls who were missing out on our looks and character.

It was also very scary. The risk-reward ratio was just too high in my nefarious mind so I went back to the deception drawing board and came up with the Grandma Loop. . .

My town in Pennsylvania is very typical of northern towns, arranged in blocks by mostly perpendicular streets, houses going at least two stories in the air and tightly pressed together. The design makes it easy to navigate and allows many homes and businesses to be concentrated in a small area. My grandparents lived right across the street from the elementary school I had gone to and had watched me every day after school, and now they lived just a few blocks away from the high school where our track team practiced. . .

The Grandma Loop gave us a few advantages over the Donut Loop: it was closer, it was much easier to avoid getting spotted, and Grandma wouldn't charge us for snacks. . .

The first time Pete and I knocked on the door, Grandma about exploded with joy. . .grandparents love visits but they really love surprise visits. She busted out the Pepsi and  pretzels and we had a great conversation; Grandma was always so good at asking questions about your life and about what you thought about certain things (usually prompted by the local news or the old Donahue talk show)

My grandfather, or Pappy as we called him, sat on the couch with his legs stretched out, ankles crossed, working a cigarette in the corner of his lips, hands free, the way the old school guys can, making it dangle there effortlessly, giving off the aura of the greatest generation in steady wisps of cancerous cloud. . .

He would join in the conversation slightly, but not with his usual gusto or wit. Pappy was my hero in many ways but particularly the way he moaned as the victim in every situation with self-deprecating exaggeration, winking at you after he'd made the case of why his life was so horrible. . .

Or maybe I looked up to him so much because when we all went out to eat at a buffet together, everyone would return to the table carrying a salad, except Pappy, who often came back with a plate of pudding and would sit down and simply say "I love pudding." (He often washed down the main course with another round of pudding by declaring "That pudding was good, I think I'll have another.")

It was the third time Pete and I had run the Grandma Loop, and the pretzels and Pepsis were already on the coffee table and Grandma had been looking for us at the door. . .

Two minutes into the conversation and Pappy interrupted the flow, taking over. . .and I will never forget his speech that day.

"Matthew, we need to talk. We love you and we love seeing you, we really do. But you're deceiving your parents and your coach and your team by coming here every day, and though we love having you here--we can't be a part of the deception any longer. You need to be honest Matthew; it's called integrity."

"Butch, you're being too hard on him."

"No I'm not Posey, this is what he needs to hear."

They used their pet names with each other and then they caught each others' eye and Grandma knew he was right. . .

. . .and I knew he was right, and I still know he was right to this day. I always remember The Grandma Loop: there may be a way to get some free snacks and still fool everyone but it's not the way an honest life is supposed to be lived.

But I do know of a time when Pappy himself wasn't honest-- when he deceived not a track team, but an entire military. . .and he didn't do it for donuts. He needed to be seventeen to fight in World War II, but he was only sixteen. . .but back then a little white lie like that was easy to pull off. . .

My Pappy passed away a few years ago and I miss him greatly. The last times I visited him in PA we would go to the local Veteran's club and have soup together, surrounded by forgotten pillars of integrity as they meticulously crumbled saltines into plastic bowls, cold draft beers standing diligent at lonely tables, heads nodding to each other with a weight and depth of knowledge being lost in our social networked era. . .

Last night on Veteran's Day we broke our usual dinner routine and actually had a dessert. And as my thirteen year old daughter and I ate our pudding together, we remembered a man of integrity who I was blessed to call Pappy. . .

Matt O.

(RIP Wendell Paul "Whitey, Butch, Skeetz" Orth, I hope they have horseshoes where you are. . .)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Apocalypse & Utopia

This post is entitled Apocalypse & Utopia. The first section is for you Christian Romney voters and the second part is for you Christian Obama voters.

If you voted for Romney please read this:
Late last night as news tickers crossed the screen of my preferred news channel, professionally dressed reporters doubled as reluctant prophets as they foretold what now seemed inevitable. . .
The Imminent Apocalypse of America (sometime in the next 4 years or so. . .)

Luckily for you, using skills I discovered and sharpened in late 1999, I have some prescriptions to help navigate the impending wave of utter doom poised to crash into our almost-had-it-all lives.

I'm just a 21st century Paul Revere telling you to get ready! Stop complaining about popular votes and electoral college mumbo-jumbo, the "British" have already landed!! Quick, follow these instructions for the easiest passage possible through Armageddon. . .

1. Write the first angry vindictive things you can think of on Facebook. Oh, you already did? Well, go check it and see if any of your awesome friends liked it and if they didn't, re-post it! And hopefully you caught a liberal in your snare and you can go google some facts and copy and paste them and slap that liberal with them in a newsfeed debate.

2. It's going to be tough, but you're going to need to change your perspective on what a President is. Purge from your mind those pictures of Georgie Washington on his war boat on the Potomac waxing philosophical about how sweet it is to be a Baptist Founding Father, and honest Abe Lincoln with his goatee and top hat of freedom all dreaming about the day his legacy will be seared onto a copper penny. This President we have (again) HATES America. It's true. I have insider sources who say that once he knew he won again and had duped everyone into voting for him yet again, he chuckled diabolically (something like muhahahaha), steepled his hands in front of his face and cried:
"Now my perfectly planned sabotage of this useless Democratic nation can be fulfilled!"

SO, just realize and get used to the idea of a President who doesn't care at all for his country or isn't making any effort to help people. He's just a mean socialist Muslim bully who wants to kick your sandcastles down. All of them.

3. Go out and buy lots of guns, especially ones that are semi-automatic that you don't really know how to use. Then, find a very remote place and fire those jokers all night long. Why? Well, because they're coming for them. Probably like in February or something. I only got a quick peek at the Flow Chart of the Apocalypse plans and there was definitely an action point of invading all the red states and taking their guns. It was called "Operation Cold Dead Fingers" or something like that. Make sure it's a remote place where you fire them off because if a Liberal hears it, they're going to report you to the Gun Squad. Which doesn't exist. . .yet. . .

4. Make more babies. Then raise them up and send them to Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. It's kind of a long term prescription, but it involves making babies, which can be nice. The Liberals don't reproduce nearly as much as we do. . .we need to play to our strengths. If we can't vote them out, we'll breed them out.

5. Hide your nativity scene and your poster of the Ten Commandments. The Gun Squad also doubles as the No Religious Anything in Public Squad. Persecution is coming! I can't believe it, a thing like persecution being so present in a nice little thing like Christianity.

6. The Supreme Court is going to be useless sometime in March probably. I was tired of keeping up with all those wordy reports anyways. It would be best to go ahead and start learning how to break laws now (just the dumb ones) because the sense of justice in this country is about to evaporate. The Legal System is about to explode. . .literally, if Obama had his way because I saw a youtube video where he shook hands with a kid who made a pipe bomb one time. . .

7. If you know of a Christian who voted for Obama, point your finger at them and say "It's all your fault!" as often as you feel necessary. They wasted their prayers and freedom and intellect voting for the Abomination of Desolation. They were brainwashed by the Liberal Media and drank the Haterade and now want us to be Communists. Just keep pointing at your Marxist friends until they are shamed into repenting. . .hopefully soon, because we don't have long. . .

8. Pray. Pray. Pray for our country: that we would get rid of all the people who hate life, family, democracy, and hope! Pray we could get "our country" back! And restore it to the days of yore when everyone was a believer and sin and evil were jokes of a bygone age. . .I mean, women were treated poorly and we had slaves and all kinds of crippling diseases and stuff but everyone in the government was a perfectly tithing Christian who rescued dogs from the shelters and went to Washington with a Bible in one hand and a Bible in the other. LET'S PRAY PEOPLE and bring back those days! That's the kind of prayer Paul and Peter were talking about when they casually mentioned in the Holy Scriptures to pray for and respect our leaders during an era of secular empire and tyrants . . .

(Also: Peter meant America when he wrote "holy nation" not an unseen Kingdom of merciful and holy priests who extend across history and geographical boundaries under the gracious Lordship of Christ. . .)

9. Pick up some sugary cereals. They're going to be outlawed soon because some loon in a labcoat said they're bad for you; plus they stack very well in Doomsday Bunkers. Eat what you want because they say they're Pro-Choice but that's just for women who are pregnant. You will have no freedoms left. Also, I would recommend catching a disease or harming yourself so badly it requires major surgery and running to the hospital before they stop offering healthcare. From what I heard, they are only going to treat you if you are really really poor but even then it won't be great. So hurry up and get some medical attention while it lasts. Also, dust off your charts of Revelation and start mouthing the words "End Times" in the mirror. . .it's here, just like Jesus said in Matthew about the Black President in 21st century United States getting elected being the final sign before the Tribulation. . .

10. As of last night, you lost your chance to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. It's gone. I hope you enjoyed that privilege and right while you had it because now all you have left is running water, indoor plumbing, indoor heat, electricity, transportation, grocery stores, well-made homes, local law enforcement, family, church, and faith in a Sovereign Loving and Just God.

If you voted for Obama please read this:

Late last night as news tickers crossed the screen of my preferred news channel, professionally dressed reporters doubled as jubilant prophets as they foretold what now seemed inevitable. . .
The Imminent Utopia of America (sometime in the next 4 years or so. . .)

Look, I don't really have any advice for you. You're the elite forces of Christendom! You don't want to hear my mundane blogspirations! Go enjoy the victory over those Cro-Magnon fundamentalists who only voted Romney because they're greedy capitalists! What? No, I'm not worried they're reading this. . .did you see that post up there? I'll be surprised if they read past #3, there's too many militias to raise and little uncouth critters to homeschool. They don't love God or the poor like you do; they just want to make sure they get Medicare when they're old and you put them in a nursing home because they're an inconvenience. Selfish pledge-to-the-flag-saying bigots!

And the fact is this: We really are better than our ignorant redneck Christian cousins who voted for Romney. Our intelligence and keen insight into the American government and its economic policies were clearly derived by much study and multiple degrees in specialized fields. It's OK to feel a little cocky, those knucklehead Red-Staters probably used FOX News to get their info; they've never even heard of blogs and Time or Newsweek or the WSJ (See! They're looking up WSJ right now! Wall Street Journal you morons!!) They don't laugh at Jon Stewart either. Inconceivable.

It feels good to be right. Now that they know who really has the best prayer life maybe they'll wise up on other things too like stopping the foolish nonsense of reminding of us about the authority of God's Word and keeping those flags in their sanctuaries. Don't they know that Christianity and America don't mix at all? That it's wrong to honor all those people who died and served with their whole lives to hopefully preserve our God-blessed liberties here  and maybe make it better for other people in other countries?

But seriously, back to this Utopia. . .it's going to be awesome! And it starts with us rolling our eyes at all the folks with Romney/Ryan bumper stickers on their cars. Bahahaha. I could get a kick out of that for a while, and by "while" I mean as long as it takes for those economic policies I completely understood to start raining down the gold. So let's grab our favorite microbrewed beer and drink moderately! Or add a little more soy to our single-shot no-whip sugar-free caramel latte and sing the praise choruses (definitely not the hymns) of Obama and his reign of perfection.

Just remember: your vote made all the difference!  Don't worry about your life making a difference the next 1459 days before the next election, all you need to do now is tweet smug remarks about how the utopia would come faster if we had a Democratic congress. Your neighbors are all probably perfectly whole now and not hurting at all since Obama is on the throne and all the poverty in the entire world started drying up the second Florida started turning blue.

In fact, why don't you text King Jesus and tell Him to take His time? Our votes have already got the big stuff taken care of. . .

Matt O.

(If you comment, keep it gentle and respectful. You know gentle right? The fruit of the Spirit? Oh, you thought a fruit of the Spirit was voting and arguing about politics on Facebook or in comment threads. . .sorry, I must have one of those crazy translations of the Bible)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tricycle Death Race

In keeping with this week's unofficial theme of Summer Camp Game Memories. . .

I was the teacher for a week of camp in a remote part of Florida. We often think of Florida for its beaches, theme parks, citrus and Miami Heat. . .but there are many very flat and very rural parts of the state. I am drawn to speaking in the forgotten realms of the South like a Baptist to a buffet after a service that went past noon. . .

The group that brought me in were very gracious to allow my five year old daughter Micah to travel with me. It was the first time the two of us could go on an extended trip together and she was very excited. . .

We played at the lake (this one was better than the muddy puddle one from SC. . .sorry South Carolinians. . .), ate together in the cafeteria, slept side by side on the dorm mattresses we pulled to the floor, and shared many a new memory as she got to experience youth camp ministry in all of its glory. . .including a masquerade ball where she got to dress up all fancy and steal the boys' swords, a shaving cream fight, and the traditional group scavenger hunt. . .

It was also the first time Micah got to see a full-blown Game Night in the gym. . .

One of the most popular games was the Tricycle race. . .which involved teenage boys racing little tricycles in a mad sprint, knees and elbows bent outward into points, backs hunched over the tiny handlebars, the crowd urging them to the finish line thirty yards away. . .

There were wrecks and tumbles, rowdy fans and photo finishes, it was pretty much the NASCAR of toddler racing vehicles. . .

My daughter loved those races. . .she would jump around at the start and begin screaming and clapping as they pumped those little pedals with over-sized feet. She would pick her favorite racer, asking a teenager the driver's name, then yell his name until the end.

During one race she turned to me and saw me smiling and enthusiastically asked me a question:
"Who are you rooting for daddy?"
"No one really, I'm just enjoying the race," I answered.
"DADDY! YOU HAVE TO ROOT FOR SOMEBODY!" she yelled in disbelief.

It was inconceivable (a correct usage of the word) to her developing mind that I could watch a race and not root for someone. Daddy, you simply must pick! That's how it's done!

Perhaps you've heard we're about to have a presidential election. . .

And in the midst of all the mailouts in my mailbox telling me who conservatives should vote for, debate sound bites analyzed by people who've already made up their mind, Facebook posturing, and absolutist semi-apocalyptic commercials about the economy all I keep hearing in my inner ears is:

You're right. I do have to root for somebody and I do have to pick someone.

And I made that choice a long time ago: I pick Jesus. The King of Kings.

What!! Are you saying you're writing in "Jesus" when you vote?!? Or even worse. . .you're not voting!? YOU HAVE TO PICK SOMEONE!!!!!

I'm not telling you what I'm doing on election day. But I will tell you that other than walking under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, there is no other pressure from the heavenlies to pick someone this election. . .

In fact, believers all across this country will be doing many different things on election day. . .decisions by God's people will be different, even after much prayer, study, and discussion. And that should be a telling sign and reminder to us. . .

We quote the prophecy every Christmas season: "The government will be on His shoulders". . .and that means not just the United States government, but the governing of all people groups. . .

The hope and prophecy of Isaiah is not about establishing leaders in a democracy and a legislature that will be elected by God to an infinite term and have congressional sessions together holding hands and singing Amazing Grace as they pass perfect laws for eternity. . .

No, the hope and prophecy is about the Kingdom of God ruled forever by the gracious and just Creator King made up of the peoples who believe in Him and have found redemption living under His lordship. . .The Kingdom of God is about sacrificial love, humility, justice and hope. . .and right now friends. . .the Kingdom of the United States is not about those things.

"You're just being cynical!"

No, I am not. I have great hope. I am actually doing what my daughter yelled at me. . .

I'm rooting for King Jesus to come in grace in the way I treat my family, my neighbors and my community. . .and I'm rooting for Him to be present in your hearts and lives too, and in this country of greed, materialism, narcissism, and violence. . .
but also in the communist countries of the world, and in the 3rd world (or worse) countries, and war-torn and rape-savaged countries. . .

I am rooting for King Jesus.

Mitt Romney is not Jesus and neither is Barack Obama. . .nor Ron Paul or any other person. . .

If you vote, remember that. . .our hope is in the Risen Savior not the church-going of a presidential candidate or his theoretical economic policies.

And our duty as believers is to the Kingdom of priests that we now belong to. . .not a flag, not a type of government, nor to just casting one vote every four years. We now live in such a way that declares there is another way: the way of light. . .
which is about sacrificial love, humility, justice and hope.

I am not anti-America but I am anti-the-kingdoms-of-this-world because I am Pro-Jesus. . .

Lastly, Evil will "not win" if your candidate doesn't get elected this week. . .evil was defeated at the cross! No matter who wins, next Monday you are still called to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. . .even if they voted for the Bad Guy.

I have a sneaking suspicion in the grand scheme of the redemptive narrative in our world that our hysterics and hype every four years is eerily similar to the mob enthusiasm spent in that rural Florida gym during the tricycle death races. . .

Matt O.

(If you comment, keep it civil.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Toilet Bowl Sermons

Sometimes people ask me what I think about youth ministry, and I fear they regret asking the question after they receive a wikipedia's worth of ramblings that culminate in principles which raise a defiant fist to conventional practice and offer them little solace. . .

And occasionally I get someone who is even more specific and asks me what I think about middle school ministry. . .that answer is a lot shorter:

"I don't believe in it." (awkward pause)

Then I laugh and tell them I'm kidding. . .which I am. . .barely.

Maybe it's just all the scars speaking. . .

It was a hot, humid, and sandy summer in the lowcountry of South Carolina. . .which may be the most redundant sentence I've ever typed.

I was invited to speak at a middle school summer camp on a murky body of water they called a lake. It sounded so good on paper: bring the family, stay next to the lake for a week, only speak in the evenings, etc.

In reality, the heat all week felt like we were wearing black sweat pants as we sat in the Devil's locker room. . .the humidity was so thick butterflies were wearing headbands. There were bugs everywhere, beetles scurrying into our concrete apartment, dragonflies the size of vultures dive-bombing your head as you tried to avoid the clinging black-grey gritty dirt and the sand spurs (which is like trying to avoid political conversations on Facebook in October).

The concrete apartment we stayed in reminded me of a prison cell, which is appropriate, because the food also reminded me of prison. I bet their head cafeteria worker had a poster of a food pyramid on the wall with hot dogs as the base and carbohydrates you can serve with an ice cream scoop making up the rest of it. My memory is a little hazy but I think the only flavors the soft serve ice cream machine had were Pickle and Foot Stew. . .

 My first night speaking to a room of 200 middle schoolers was also a wonderfully unique experience. The standard Youth Worship Service at these camps, if at full capacity, looks something like this:
Loud Intro Music the Youth Pastor Still Thinks His Students Listen To
(Host Pastor Grabs Band and Speaker so we can "Pray Real Quick")
Opening Video/Announcements Promising Next Big Thing To Be Awesome
Barely Practiced Skit OR Game Found on the Internet or Re-Heated From Youth Events Past
Awkward Transition to Worship Band
17 Member Youth Band Takes Five Minutes Situating Themselves
Lead Singer Prays to Regain "Focus" Lost During Last Five Minutes
3 or 12 Songs Sung By the Band and First Half of Auditorium
Speaker Delivers Paradigm Shifting Prophetic Word of Truth
Songs of Reflection/Commitment/Weird Staring at Band
Closing Comments and/or Re-Preach by Host Pastor

But my Host Pastor had a bit of a wrinkle. . .we just started the singing right away, which I was very encouraged by. . .but then he decided the Game would go next and then me. . .

As the Youth Band finished up a pretty solid set with a blistering combo of Tomlin and Hillsong, the GameMaster got up as he his crew set up the Game. . .which I will now describe to you and give you my usual disclaimer when Truth is about to arrive: I am not making this up.

They brought out 2 toilets, yes, 2 porcelain toilets, that I assume were purchased new and never used. The bottoms of the toilets had been sealed shut and were able to hold liquid, which was fortunate, because they began to fill the toilets up with Mountain Dew. . .Mountain Dew they said represented the other brightly colored liquid usually occupying  toilet bowls.

The next part of set up was the volunteers individually unwrapping bags of mini Baby Ruth candy bars and plopping them into the pseudo-urine filled pots. These Baby Ruths represented the deposits typically made at the First Bank of Porcelain but can also be found in the diapers of toddlers and in places where insensitive dog owners walk their dogs. . .

The Game itself would require the participants to get on their hands and knees and bob by sticking their heads in the toilets and using only their mouths to remove the Lil Surprises from their soup. The winner would be the person who could create the biggest pile of sugar turds. And Katniss thought her Hunger Games were cruel. . .

I forget who won and what the tally ended up being-- I was too busy dry-heaving over my sermon notes. The Game crew came out at the end of the game and removed the toilets and Baby Ruth bombs as the Host Pastor came up for my introduction. . .

"We're really excited to have for our preacher this week, Matt Orth. . ."

No one was listening to him or looking at me as I came up; they were too busy watching the laughing helpers mop up the carbonated pee behind me. . .

To this day, it's probably my best introduction ever.

So what did I do next?

I prayed. Then I taught and proclaimed the Gospel.

Years later I don't remember what message it was or what the response was. . .but I do remember this one thing:
The Gospel was preached right where it always has been and where it always belongs: in the muck and messiness of real people's lives. (just sometimes the metaphor is a tad more literal)

Matt O.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Holy Ghost RSVP

Do you remember getting handwritten invitation cards to birthday parties when you were a child? There wasn't much better than getting that primary colored card with the confetti, balloons, and noisy horn clipart on the front declaring "PARTY TIME!". . .or when you occasionally got the themed birthday party invite. . .perhaps you can remember the accompanying artistic masterpieces with those themes:
(The answers are: Cowboy, Train, and Skate Party)

I grew up before Power Rangers, Dora, Barney, Pokemon, Spongebob, and the Internet. Our options were severely limited. And sure we did have Scooby Doo. . .but if he showed up at your party, it was going to be the dad of the birthday kid wearing a homemade outfit the wife sewed together with fabric from a Thrift store and Scooby's head would be some lumpy paper mache project they paid the art teacher fifty bucks to make. . .

Regardless, getting those invitations for a party were like little mini-Christmases throughout the year. A party! And I'm invited! (Please, please, please have ice cream caaaaaake!)

The standard invitation packs of yesterday have been obliterated in this era of digital photography and accessible technology. Now we have professional level invites going out with our actual kids on the cards. . .and social networking capabilities to instantaneously send out invites for any party. . .who knew?

With the increase of official invitations, there seems to have been a corresponding increase in the number of parties our society has. . .I get invited to engagement parties, wedding showers, the weddings themselves, baby showers, baby birthdays, cook outs for youth groups six hours away, something called Bubble Safari and Sorority Fundraisers for the Troops that involve kissing them. (Thank you Facebook, and no, I did not make any of those up.)

With the onslaught of invitations, it is easy sometimes to forget the joy of being invited. . .for your presence to be desired at a celebratory event, to belong to a fellowship of joy and laughter. There is power in genuine invitation, a power that makes people feel welcome and loved. Correspondingly, no one likes to feel as if the invitation wasn't genuine or sincere. . .that they were just invited because you hit "send to all" or you were worried about their feelings. . .(Just ask some of the hobbits from Bilbo's big party. . .)

My first thought would be to remember the power of invitation in regards to the people in your life, both those who feel included. . .and especially those who feel excluded. . .

But additionally I wanted to write about God and the way we invite Him to our churches. . .

A common prayer phrase I hear at the beginning of our worship services goes something like this:
"And God, we just want to invite you into this place this morning. . ."

I used to get frustrated by that prayer because I felt we people don't really have the power of invitation. . .He is God and He can show up anywhere He wants to. . .

I pictured it like the young child who kept signs on the bedroom door saying "Keep Out" or "Do Not Enter" and the child then pretentiously allows the parent into the room. . .the same parent who gave them life, raised them, pays for the house, and gives them the square footage for their own bedroom and everything in that bedroom. . .

Let me tell you something you little bugger, I can enter this room any time I want to! Who are you to invite me?!

I no longer get frustrated in that way about the prayer. . .because as a parent I get to experience the joy of those moments. . .Even though I can enter my child's room any time I want. . .it feels great to be truly invited into the room. . .

God literally sent Jesus to die to redeem us back into relationship with Himself. . .I believe to be invited into our "bedrooms" is special for Him too. . .even though He is already there and can manifest Himself any way He chooses anytime He wants to. . .

Now the questions for me are. . .
Do we really want Him to "show up" or is it just a polite invitation we give out of ritual?
If He does "show up", how do we know?
and probably most importantly. . .
If He doesn't come to the party, how do we know?

If there's one thing I learned about parties growing up. . .
Everyone knows it when the stars of the party are there. . .and when they aren't.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to Find a Burning Bush

You've been in a desert for forty years, eyes with a permanent squint from glaring watchfully over your flock, the finest of wrinkles at the edges, hands calloused to the point where they've cracked all over, the only smooth places are where the wood staff is gripped, your one constant companion during your imposed exile.

The pattern of a shepherd's existence has become a rhythm you move to every morning, every day, every evening. Even the variables of new sheep and new behaviors have been assimilated into your silent liturgy--highs and lows, sun and rain, predators and prey, all surrendering to your regiment, a magnetic pull that allows no freedom.  Today, this day, is every day. And the days have embraced you and made you a seamless part of the irresistible tide of the desert. . .

Is that fire? Probably. You've seen fire before, many times. Most of the time a lightning strike will hit a dry patch of brush and burn itself out--occasionally it will be a fellow wandering shepherd who left their coals thinking them covered well. . .

That is fire. And it is burning brightly, consistently, and. . .permanently? Let us go over to it and see what is going on. . .it's just a slight break in the pattern, a minor detour, a one-time anomaly. . .let us go see why this bush burns but does not burn up. . .

We know what happens now, don't we?
Moses encounters Yahweh, the great I AM, and he finds himself standing on holy ground, a place where sandals come off and heads are bowed. The fire, the bush, the Voice, and the calling all shattered Moses' four decade pattern of shepherding in the wilderness. The Burning Bush is the beginning of one of the grandest narratives of the Bible, the Exodus of God's people, the journey from slavery to freedom, from death to life. . .

I was recently at a conference where I met a very articulate, educated young woman who was  practicing law in a big city. We were sitting at a table in the volunteer's room after lunch and I was asking her typical get-to-know you questions. . .

"So wow, you're getting to practice law in a very specific arena, is that what you've wanted to do?"

"Not really. I'm just doing it for now. I'm called to work with orphans in ___________ but I'm waiting for the fire, you know?"

"What if the fire never comes?"

I received a very shocked and blank look.

Only one person in the Bible ever got a burning bush--and he didn't want it. He wasn't even looking for it, and when he got the Burning Bush moment, he tried to reason with God out of it with some quickly put together rationalizations. . .

I told this young lady that if she had a calling to do something, then she might want to consider the next step as doing it and not waiting for miraculous fire sent from on high to settle into her heart. . .

I had limited time with her, and had already shocked her with my statements so I backed off but I could've gone further and said that "Burning Bush Moments", meaning clear definitive times in God's presence where we worship in awe and understand what we are to do, come more frequently when we are already walking and working in obedience. . .rather than when we are waiting for a supernatural passion to arrive. And even then we are not promised those unique otherworldly moments. . .we may get them (once every 40 years?) but we are most assuredly not promised them.

I was still mulling these thoughts and had just jotted them down on my little mini-clipboard with its mini-legal pad when one of the emcees of the event shared a poem. . .about a burning bush.

It is from Elizabeth Barret Browning and it goes like this:

Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - 

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

And here is the real secret of the Burning Bush. . .the real secret of experiencing heavenly fire and walking in wonder and awe. . .

Are we willing to slow down our frantic pace, take off our efficiency and profit goggles, switch off our consumer engines, turn down the noises of a million media devices and power down the screens of isolated connectivity enough that we can see the fire all around us and smell the roses of this spectacular garden that has been granted to us? Will our sandals stay pragmatically on as we pluck the blackberry and see only a pie for our appetites. . .or will we fling them away in joy and awe seeing in this bush a miracle of Creation? (Which will make them taste all the sweeter. . .)

The sacred spaces are all around us. . .Lord, give us eyes to see. . .

Matt O.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Night the Tooth Fairy Didn't Come

Raising children is a complex stew of consistency, sacrifice, endurance, creativity and joy. Each moment in the relational process of raising your child contains at least one of these elements, and sometimes even all five. The first concept there, consistency, is a huge one, because it encompasses everything from discipline to family traditions. . .and woe to the parent who breaks the pattern of tradition. . .

Our oldest daughter, Micah, was around six, highly verbal, extremely imaginative and quite passionate, and she instantly loved the concept of family traditions. For her, if we did it once and she enjoyed it-- it was thereby a Tradition which must be repeated. . .and the more creative it was, the more it should be concreted into the patterns of our existence.

It was the perfect storm then: a child who loved imaginative and repetitive activities and the childhood sacrament of The Tooth Fairy. . .

Wait! I go through the pain of losing this bloody wiggly tooth and I get to hide it under my pillow and a whimsical creature from the Other comes while I sleep and pays for my shoddy first edition dental work with cold hard cash? Sign me up!

We added to the allure by paying her in gold Sacajawea dollars (You remember those right? A surefire top ten entry on the Bad Ideas of the Millennium List, ranking up there with peanut butter and jelly in the same jar, George Lopez getting his own late night show, or this product which has a firm grip on the #1 spot) You ever try to pay for something with Sacajawea dollars? People look at you like you gave them a handful of buttons. Nonetheless, my daughter loved getting those 2 gold coins, it was like pirate's treasure (delivered by an orally fixated pixie of course).

It was the night of Tooth #3. . .we had established with the previous teeth the pattern of bedtime hide and morning reward with the Tooth Fairy, and Micah was excited for the tradition to manifest once again. My wife was working late that evening on her animal business and I had some friends over for a sporting event and general male ballyhoo. We tucked Micah in for the night, finished our assorted activities, and went to bed late. . .

Our alarm clock the next morning sounded really weird. . .it sounded like a wailing kindergartener was standing by my ear. . .I woke up in my normal way, which is like a dimwitted bear after a winter of hibernation, and realized there was a wailing kindergartener standing by my ear.

My daughter was at eye level with her palm held out, a tiny misshapen piece of enamel known as an incisor lying there desolate and alone, her mouth contorted into the Saddest Frown Ever, with the following words being bansheed into my ear canal at a volume usually reserved for tornado sirens:

"She didn't come. She didn't come. SHE DID-N'T COOOOOOOME."

My wife and I bolted upright then and gave each other the patented Marriage Look known as the I Thought You Were Going To Face. We followed this up with the We're the Worst Parents in the Galaxy Face and the She's Going to Start Piercing Body Parts at Age 8 Because We Didn't Love Her Enough Face. . .

That moment may have been the worst I've ever felt as a parent. . .the sheer disappointment radiating from my child was completely my fault. . .I straight up forgot a cherished childhood tradition. . .

Shannon and I recovered nicely, her swooping in with the compassionate hug and tone of voice that moms seem to have intuitively better skills in, and I came up with a Plan B which began a few minutes later with a knock at the door. . .

Shannon calmed Micah down enough to hear the knock on the door and said,
"I wonder who that could be? Would you like to answer the door?"

Micah shuffled all teary eyed and red faced to the door and opened it. . .and there on the porch was a letter addressed to her. . .

It was a letter from the Tooth Fairy explaining why she didn't come (The Boogeyman delayed her), apologizing profusely (She normally would never let this happen) and here was a quick treasure map to the gold coins, just leave your tooth there when you find them (I had to hide the gold so the Boogeyman wouldn't get it).

We got dressed and had a fun treasure hunt together, and then went to the computer and started a children's book called The Night the Tooth Fairy Didn't Come (a work still in progress). That morning of disappointment has turned into one of our favorite family memories. . .

One of the things I like to study is the effect and role of unmet expectations in our lives. . .
We all have expectations and the vast majority of the time we genuinely expect them to be met. . .and when they aren't, our responses usually include any combination of disappointment, disillusionment, anger, frustration, bitterness, whining, or isolation.

Expectations and how they are fulfilled or not fulfilled affect us every day. . .even to the simplest things. . .
We get angry at the red light not because it is red but because we expected it to be green.

We get disappointed at the movie for not meeting the expectations we had after we saw the preview, at the meal for not looking or tasting like the commercial showed it or the menu described it, at the product we just purchased because it didn't function the way we wanted to or make us feel the way we thought it would. . .(or the TV show LOST didn't end the way we wanted it to and we're still cynical about committing to any drama in primetime ever again. . .)

But even more insidious and destructive is the way our feelings can fester and cause isolation in our relationships both with people and God. Unmet expectations poorly handled have derailed many a faith journey, marriage, and friendship. . .

We cannot realistically expect people to never hurt us (by forgetting the "tooth fairy") nor can we expect God to always act in the way that we want Him to (That would make us God and Him a circus performer on our leash). I am not saying we walk around only with the expectation to be disappointed, but it would make many of us way more healthy all around if we stopped placing lofty and mostly unvoiced expectations on God and our relationships. . .and concurrently stopped wailing inwardly about those expectations when they are not fulfilled the way we want them to be. . .

In fact, I think many of us are missing the "knocks at the door" because we are too busy screaming "She didn't cooooommme!". . .and if you don't hear the knock, you can't enjoy what might be one of the best treasure hunts ever. . .

"I wonder who that could be? Would you like to answer the door?"

Matt O.

Quick Bonus Story if you aren't tired of reading yet. . .
I think it was Tooth #5 where Micah knew the Tooth Fairy was just us, and she concurrently was very into fairies in general. So that night I put on her little costume fairy wings she had, grabbed her fairy godmother wand and had Shannon take a picture of me sneaking into her room as the Tooth Fairy. I printed off the picture, folded it, and placed it with the Sacajaweas. The next morning she came out of her room not laughing, but screaming, and yelled:
"The Toothy Fairy is NOT A BOY!"
. . .and proceeded to tear up the picture and leave it in the hallway.
You see, once again, unmet expectations!

And I just found this:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Binkies for Wrinklies (Part 2)

The danger in pacifying by preference is that you can end up with a congregation of babies.
The power of pacifying by love is you build a community of worshipers who belong to one another.

We left yesterday with those main thoughts as we told the tale of Evelyn Cash & The Cup. . .a few more thoughts before I head to the beach for a week of vacation. . .

The goal of your pastoral leadership should never be to make everyone happy, or to remove all reason for complaint. Spirit-led leadership is about shepherding people to love the Lord God with all they are, and to love their neighbors as they love themselves. This has to mean that there will be differences in preferences amongst the flock, otherwise we are only loving those who are just like us. We cannot  truly love unless we are laying down life, and you can't lay down life if you are surrounded by people who all have the exact same preferences as you.
The battle that used to rage in church communities (and still does many places) between Hymns vs. Choruses is a great example. . .instead of learning to serve each other by insisting that the other receive their preference, we pacify ourselves by creating a service for our specific preferences. Or we plant a church that caters exclusively to "our people". . .(I'm a church planter and I recognize this tendency in me as well: the people want something, give it to them quick, before they become upset!)

The older generation and the younger generation continue to separate by preference and personal details because they desire first and foremost to have it their way.

We need diversity to learn what love means. Unity isn't being homogenous, it's about different and unique people becoming One Body because they serve One Lord. We need to learn to build bridges with love when the complaints come rather than racing around to put out the fires of superficial discontentment. The guilt is on leadership for taking this approach too often. . .but the guilt is also equally shared (and sometimes more so) by those of us who sit in services and act like babies demanding their bottle and "pacy" and not giving our leaders the freedom to shepherd. Or having the patience with each other to bear with one another in love. . .

We often think the state of immaturity in American Churchianity is due to theological issues. . .

But maybe it's just because we're immature.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Binkies for Wrinklies (Part 1)

She sat halfway back, right on the aisle, an elbow crooked over the side. It was her seat. The congregation had become familiar with her presence in that location and thus had conceded the spot to her dominion, sort of like squatter's rights for church pews. It was a 200 year old congregation, and Evelyn Cash had sat in her pew for 199 of them. Give or take.

She was always early, which was a good thing, because she wouldn't have been able to give the church bulletin a thorough pre-service edit otherwise. Evelyn had a perfect helmet of hair, "done" every week, gray and white, with highlights of ashy blue mixed in. Large glasses accentuated the predator's eyes, which roamed the sanctuary for the out of place: a fallen offering envelope, missing flags from the stage perhaps, or a youth pastor with an untucked shirt or an unwanted goatee.

Once the "out of place" were located, any listeners unluckily caught in her whirlpool of grumbling got to hear about them from a perfectly pinched and wrinkled mouth, like she had been born smoking an invisible cigar and told to never let it slip from her lips lest she die.

I was the untucked and goateed youth pastor who knowingly swam into the whirlpool each Sunday morning, hoping each week my chipper can-do attitude would break the chains of complaining. . .

"Good morning Evelyn, how are you?"

It's cold in here.

It's hot in here.

I don't know any of these songs.

I saw some of your kids running around outside behind the gym.

You think he's gonna preach past twelve again this week?

Where's the choir? We haven't had the choir in a month.

No organ? These songs don't sound right without the organ.

When are you going to shave that?

Slowly, Evelyn became my enemy and her negativity just an accepted part of my Sunday morning liturgy. Arrive early. Help the Pastor get ready. Meet my students. Tell my students not to run around behind the gym. Get an earhole of complaint from Evelyn Cash.

I began complaining about her complaining. She was becoming a joke to me and the students, like a church version of the old men in the balcony on the Muppets, except without the humor. I wish she'd get with the program and stop being so negative.

"Good morning Evelyn, how are you today?"
"They moved the water fountain out of the foyer."
"Yeah, it was leaking on the floor, and now we have more room to greet people."
"Hrmmmm. Well, now I can't get a drink when I come in."

I just walked away gritting my teeth and shaking my head. And then a thought occurred to me, Evelyn Cash is my enemy, what am I supposed to do with my enemies? Love them.

I went downstairs and got a cup from the kitchen, filled it up from the water fountain and brought it back to the sanctuary. . .

"Here you go Evelyn."

 A pause. Something resembling a tentative smile crept onto her face, a coy look softening her hawk eyes. . .

"Thank you."

One cup of cold water was all it took. I got pre-service hugs each week instead of complaints about my casual attire. Some weeks I even slid into the pew beside her and flirted a bit. . .

"Whatcha know good looking?"
"You stop it!"

A highlight of our holiday youth group caroling that year was stopping at Evelyn Cash's and everyone getting hugs from a teary and gentle saint. (Pic below, complete with my Youth Pastor Hair Blonde Edition 2.0)

I remember the story of the cup of cold water that turned an enemy into a friend often, because it speaks in multiple ways to life in American Churchianity. . .

I've already commented recently on the lost art of listening to those who have stories to tell ( so I won't go into that any further. And the lesson on loving your enemy rather than complaining about them or avoiding them speaks for itself. . .but another thought. . .

Pacifiers (or Binkies) are what we give babies to stop them from crying, to pacify them, to calm them down. They are momentary fixes in the emotional development of the child, and parents with toddlers who love pacifiers have to not only potty train them, but also eventually get them off the binky.

Did I pacify Evelyn? Without being condescending, I did to some degree. But how did she go from crying to contentment? With an act of love, with a bridge of relationship by serving her. She was not pacified by me succumbing to her preferences. I did not order the music team to play the 17 organ-led hymns of Evelyn's worship canon every service for the rest of her life.

The danger in pacifying by preference is that you can end up with a congregation of babies.
The power of pacifying by love is you build a community of worshipers who belong to one another.

Tomorrow we will journey a little farther along with these thoughts. . .

Matt O.

Friday, October 5, 2012

How Are You?

"How are you?"

How am I? How am I?

Will you wait for an answer
or will you walk by grinning
knowing I'm just fine,
just like you, just like him, just like her?
We're all fine.

Good, good, and you?

"How are you?"

How am I? How am I?

Stand here and listen as I keep your hand in the grip of the shake you meant to release,
as I hold on and answer the question you asked but didn't really mean. . .
You have asked, and I will answer,
I will look you in the eyes and open my heart and my mouth and you will receive an answer,
a piece of me and we will no longer be
strangers bumping politely in the same dark ocean. . .

How am I?

Drink deeply from the wells of life was once the magnetic drumbeat of my soul.
The echoes of the Creator are everywhere, dance accordingly.
Yet other drummers crowded in, other rhythms to move to,
although it was no dance. . .
It was a trance, a shuffling, I became a zombie of the highest order,
craving not the flesh of the living
just content to flail along slowly to the next numbing destination.
Alive, yes, but unaware.
How am I?
Well that drumbeat has returned. . .
At first an uncertain thump off in the distance
like a clap of thunder from a storm whose rain you may not feel. . .
Thum. Thum.
I took a rest from aimless wandering, a pause from coasting on momentum from memories past
and I turned that ear of the spirit towards that far off call.
Thum. Thum.
A Wind rustling browning leaves, 
An alarm clock long forgotten
waking a weakened sleeper.
I grabbed my pilgrim's compass and found it faithfully pointing still towards
rich soil, high seas, and colors that could paint the gray world alive. 
How am I?
I am stretching out folded wings for the first time in ages, shaking dust off tools long forgotten and reclaiming paradigms and epiphanies of an eternal vocabulary. . .
restoring mental faculties filed away flippantly by the dictator of real life.
I am allowing the muses and the rainbows to restore the joints of flight and fancy
with their otherworldy magic,
to whisper whimsically the nameless things in my life and make this tin man dance again.
Drink deep from the wells of life.
He is good. And He gives good gifts. 
And they are present in every sparrow, every hair, every breath.
Each joy, each pain, each hope, and each death.

How am I doing?
Oh friend, I am fine.Very fine, thank you very much.
But now I ask:
How are you?
Matt O.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Gambling with Orphans

"There is a youth group in Southern California who decided to adopt an orphanage in Brazil and support them with prayer, service, and monetary giving. The teenagers help get monthly sponsors for the orphans and they organize one big mission trip to go there every year. In addition to just serving the people who live and work at the orphanage, the youth group likes to arrive with a large financial donation. I'd like to tell you the way the youth pastor and his students fund their trip and where the money comes from for the donation. . .
One Saturday night, every month throughout the year, they hold a Casino Night. The Gym gets transformed into a gambling casino complete with lights, decorations, card games and dice games. The teenagers dress up in formal wear and are the dealers and hosts for the event, running the games, handing out mixed non-alcoholic drinks, etc.
They invite the church and the whole community to attend and it's a big hit. The deal is this: any winners get to keep what they win but whatever the "house" makes goes to support the orphans, 100% of it. So far, they haven't had to do any car-washes, and the orphanage is thriving thanks to this youth group. So, our first question is. . .what do you think about this youth group?"

These were the opening words of an Ethics class that my partner-in-ministry-crime Seth and I taught over ten years ago in a local church. The room was packed. It was a Sunday School room for 45 but there were at least 65 people in there, from senior citizens and college students to homeschooling moms and blue collar dads. I blame the high attendance on the announcement we gave from the stage in Big Church the previous week. . .
. . .the announcement where Seth and I threw out to the crowd various ethical questions like "Is it ever right to lie?" or "Should we ever disobey the government?". In the midst of that announcement, Seth went in slang mode, cocked his elbows in the air, mimed pinching a cigarette in one hand and yelled "Can Christians ever burn one?" The crowd erupted in laughter, and ten days later we had an overflowing class. Was it our humor they were drawn to or did they really want to know if they could burn "one"? We may never know.

We started off the class with a "What do you think?" question about the gambling Youth Group in California. To this day, it might've been the most electric 60 minutes of Christian Education I've ever been a part of. . .it was like we had all the Republicans and Democrats of the world in one room and told them we could only nominate one person for president and it was going to be Lady GaGa.

You know those small groups when a leader throws out a question and then ends up answering it because they waited for two minutes and all they got was one mumbled cliche from someone staring at the floor? Well, this group was the opposite of that with gas thrown on it. . .

People had opinions and they let 'em fly. The following are some quotes as best as I can remember them. The one about smoking crack is the only one I'm sure I got right verbatim. Yep, the one about smoking crack. . .

"I don't see what's so wrong with it, as long as the money is going to a good cause."

"Gambling is wrong. End of story."

"Show me in the Bible where gambling is wrong."

"What's the difference between spending a few bucks a month on the lottery and gambling thousands of dollars a year on the stock market."

"There's a difference! One's an investment!"

"Really? I thought it was you taking a chance of making a ton of money off a smaller amount of money. It's like a lottery for rich people."

"We're supposed to be influencing these kids for good. Might as well take 'em to the street corner and teach 'em to smoke crack!"

The class went back and forth, with Seth and I occasionally jumping in and playing Devil's Advocate (or assuming the role of  Referee of Civility) and I'm pretty sure we could've filled a second hour. Maybe a third.

We calmed everyone down at the end to give our closing speech which went like this. . .
"There is no youth group in California doing Casino night. We made that up. We are not endorsing gambling or even saying that the ends justify the means. We did want to start this Ethics class off with a dialogue that made us examine what we believe and why we believe it. But we also wanted to point out that life is very complicated and sometimes the easy answers or the cookie-cutter answers we've always had or heard don't satisfactorily answer all the questions. 
This class is going to be about navigating some big questions with grace and understanding, teaching us to think through our decisions and actions in a way that is true to the Scriptures but not necessarily what we've always heard."

The class eventually dwindled to about 30 people. After the first class, we had one older gentleman who had a severe hearing problem leave the church in anger saying we were promoting gambling. I tried to invite him back but he didn't hear that either.
The quote of the night, however, came from a middle-aged woman, who didn't leave the church but did leave the class. . .
"I didn't know it was going to be like that. I thought they were going to tell us what to believe."

Christianity at its core should not be a religion (though it manifests as very religious most of the time) but rather a relationship. And relationships require relating with another personality personally. We cannot be content with others telling us what God is like, or just telling us to behave in a way that pleases the Big Guy Upstairs, we must walk in the relationship ourselves. . .and we'll probably end up with the same conclusions most of the time anyways. . .but I like actually drinking the Pumpkin Spice Latte as I walk amongst the falling leaves as a crisp wind flows around my newly unearthed sweatshirt. . .rather than just saying "Oh, yeah, I just love Autumn, too!" because my favorite news reporter or blogger said "that's what we do, we love fall!"

And there aren't always perfect blocks to put into all those weird shaped holes that life keeps showing us (more and more as you get older). . .I don't want other people's factory-issue blocks to cram into those spaces, I want to have a personal relationship with God where I trust Him in such a way that we can fashion blocks together even using my doubts and uncertainties in the process.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go place a bet on a horse named T Party. . .my preacher said he's real fast. . .

Matt O.