Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Joe

There is a lot about heaven I don't understand, but I do know three things about heaven that are true today that were not true on Saturday:

1. It is more crowded.
2. The harmony is a lot better.
3. The laughter has increased in volume and frequency by a couple of orders of magnitude.

You see, Joe is now there. That is very hard for me to type. Joe is not here anymore. He is there.

That is, of course, much better for Joe. But it stinks for us.

The word mentor is overused in today's society, but it is appropriate here. Joe was on a very short list of people I consider to be my mentors. He came into my life when I was 12 years old. He was my youth choir director, my church's minister of music, and my friend. I went on five choir tour/mission trips with him. From Joe I learned efficiency, professionalism, planning, excellence, the way to put the right people to work so as best to distribute the talents at your disposal, and an appreciation for humor (even if am not always successful at being funny myself).

Then, later in life, I learned something else from Joe. I learned that demons can be faced. I don't know if Joe would say that his demons were defeated, but I know that he demonstrated to everyone around him how to fight the righteous fight, even when it requires radically changing your lifestyle and finding a new calling.

One of the most fun and most daunting things I ever had to do was direct a play in which Joe was an actor. I know that does not sound like a big deal, and on the scale of life's problems, it is obviously not major. But as a stepping stone in my life, to direct my director was huge.

A natural comedian and entertainer, Joe could be serious when the situation called for it. Nobody who was with us at the Chicago Union Mission in the summer of 1978 will forget Joe's very personal discussion of what it meant to him for us to sing and minister to that group of men. Joe knew that there was no telling who might be in the crowd, and Joe brought that message home to a bunch of upper middle-class teenagers in a way that was both transparent and permanent.

There is no way that this blog can capture who Joe was or what he meant to me (or to hundreds of others), but I can say this: When you picture "Christian" in all the ways you want to picture what that means - caring, loving, active, taking risks then they are necessary to help someone else, unobtrusive, kind, lovable, gifted, excellent - you are picturing Joe. When you think of the person who smiles and causes smiles, you are thinking of Joe. When you envision a man who draws people to him without trying, who shows up to sing a song or play a saxophone or tell a joke and suddenly everyone around is smiling and having a good time, you are envisioning Joe.

In the wake of Joe's death, the words I have seen and heard used about him all follow the same theme: "good man," "encourager," "friend," "inspiration."

Joe was talented. Joe was funny... no, make that hilarious. Joe was giving. Joe touched many, many lives.

And now, in words that Joe taught me... God holds Joe in the palm of His hand.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Always an Angel

Memories are funny things.

I suppose that there is someone like her in every teenage boy's life. The gorgeous, unattainable girl. Not someone to fall in love with... just someone to admire.

For me, that was Patti. With all due respect to some who may be reading this, she was the most beautiful girl I knew in high school. We were friends, and only friends. Oh, I remember seeing a movie together here and there, usually in groups with other people, but there was never any hint of romance. She lived close to me, and I would ride my bike by her house, hoping she would notice and invite me to come in. She never did. I hope that is because she never saw me riding by.

We did have some close times. She shared important things with me, and we spent many good moments together. She made my life better in what was for all of us a confusing time.

Like many adolescent relationships, ours grew apart after high school. We saw each other occasionally, and then less and less. I believe the last time I saw her in person was about twenty years ago. Through the magic of Facebook, we reconnected, albeit not with any degree of closeness.

Still, memories are funny things, and Patti lives on in my memory as one of those truly special friends from way back.

News of Patti came to me over the last few weeks, and that news was terrible. Disease, suffering, hospitals.

Yesterday, Patti left us. Heaven has gained another angel.

But she was always an angel to me.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Age of Adaline

This is an odd movie for me to like. It is cheesy and predictable. It is panned by many critics. It is, but for the presence of Harrison Ford, a certifiable chick flick.

But I was moved by this movie. In reading the bad reviews and remembering how easy much of the plot was to see coming, I have to ask myself why I liked it so much. I think I have some answers. There will probably be spoilers here, so read at your own risk.

First, it is exceedingly rare to watch a movie in which every single character, major and minor (save for a bit part by some silly FBI agents) is good. Not just likeable. Not just attractive. But actually good. Every character in this movie is motivated by graciousness and caring, by the interests of others. Each character (even a minor criminal in the film's first scene) finds the opportunity to help others, to look out for the good of those around, to make the world a better place. That may not be realistic, but it is refreshing. More than that, it is telling how moving it is to watch. I believe we yearn for a world where those around us are better than we ourselves are, a world where help and honesty and the search for betterment are evident.

Second, the obvious themes of aging and immortality run deeper here than in the teen vampire movies to which so many reviewers seem to be comparing this film. This is a sophisticated look at what it means to experience the world, to know history because you have lived history, to miss out on so much of the world because you cannot grow old along with it. Other films, and much literature, have taken up the idea of the fountain of youth and imagined its pitfalls, but somehow this movie does it in a new way. We see that the natural order of things is as it should be, and to take someone out of the biological and chemical and physical process is to tinker with things better left alone.

Third, the power of love is plain but subtly handled. Of course the main characters fall in love, and of course love will find a way to conquer all. But along the way, we see love between a mother and daughter portrayed as beautifully as I have seen. We see love between a husband and wife, dealing with new concerns and unforeseen - indeed completely unforeseeable - complications at a time when the marriage would be thought secure and mastering them. We see love lost - love that can never be - recognized and bid farewell without maudlin melodrama but instead with touching sincerity. We see love between a father and a son fleshed out by a toss of a set of keys. And, even more subtly, we see love of a supernatural kind, reversing the irreversible as a miracle is performed.

The name of God is never mentioned in the movie except in one unfortunate curse. There is no believeable way for me to portray this film as a "Christian story," and I make no such attempt.

But watching goodness, respect for creation, and love in the context of a smart movie that values beauty and history and intelligence is worthwhile. This is a cheesy, predictable chick flick you should see.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

For Thine Is the Kingdom, and the Power

Sometimes, a blog writes itself. This morning's worship service provided such a moment.

At the conclusion of worship today, the benediction was a choir/congregational singing of Malotte's "The Lord's Prayer." As we approached the ending, with about 15 bars to go, Al Travis played a particularly stirring chord on the organ as choir and congregation sang fortissimo on "... and deliver us from evil." Suddenly, the lights went out and the organ could be heard no longer. We were plunged into darkness. Somewhere, in a closet in a hallway, a fuse had blown and a breaker had thrown.

We were not, however, plunged into silence, for the song went on without a hitch. Choir and congregation joined to finish the piece a capella. The irony of singing "for Thine is the kingdom and the power..." while the power was out was lost on no one in attendance.

About a dozen symbolic interpretations flooded everyone's mind, I am sure. You can't turn out the power of the church ... The blood will never lose its power ... The power of the Holy Spirit is eternal... And you shall receive power.

What went through my mind was perhaps simpler than that. I was proud, in a proper holy way. We were unfazed. We did not need to see our newly refurbished sanctuary, much less our hymnbooks, or hear our expensive organ in order to sing the right words in four-part harmony. Since the song is a prayer, I sang it, as I always do, with my eyes closed. I will confess to having been tempted to open them to see the reactions, but I resisted. Eyes closed and head bowed, I sang to the end with my brothers and sisters.

I love our refurbished sanctuary and expensive organ, and I am not suggesting that we routinely turn them off.

But I am so glad that our prayer needs nothing more than our voices lifted to God. I am so glad that we can join together and make it through to the end with only each other to rely on as God receives our prayer. I am so glad that the power in our worship service does not depend on a fuse box.

For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Starting the Second Half of Life


Yesterday, I had my fiftieth birthday. What do I do now?

To start with, I feel a freedom that I have not felt before. Whatever I thought I needed to prove, I don't anymore. To the extent I am going to "arrive" in life, I am there. I am finished with ladder-climbing and looking for where I go next. If the twenties were for learning, the thirties for honing, and the forties for staking my claim in the world, now is the time to take advantage of what I know, what I can do, and where I am. The search is over. Whatever I am going to be, I am.

I am at an age where I can consciously decide how to react to people and things. I simply don't have to worry anymore how I am perceived. Again, whatever I am, I am. What other people think or perceive has zero effect on how I am or am not going to change.


I do not mean to suggest that I am not going to keep learning, keep doing my best, or keep trying to help others. But I do mean that I no longer need to impress, no longer need to react, and no longer need to worry so much.

In other words, I find 50 to be liberating. I guess I feel like an adult now.


There is a lot still to do, and I have a half-century to do it. Yes, I know that demographics and statistics suggest I have some amount of time less than that, but I am telling you how I feel. I am halfway through. I have climbed whatever I am going to climb, and it is time to enjoy where I am. If the next 50 years are "downhill," I don't have to roll down fast. I can take my time.

I don't want to create a typical internet list, but I guess that is what is coming.

Here is what I intend, now that I am 50:
1. Keep learning, but learn what I want to learn.
2. Be intentional about more kindness and less snarkiness - I know by now which one is worth the time.
3. Love more.
4. Say what I mean, and not what I think anyone wants/needs to hear.
5. Relax.

Let's see how I do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MLK and The Most Excellent Way

One of the ministers at my church asked me to write a short article with some of my thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" for our church newsletter.

Below, slightly edited so it will make sense here, is what I wrote. (Regular readers of "Blogarithmic Expressions" may recognize a couple of sentences from previous posts.)

Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April of 1963. Four months later, he delivered his incredible “I Have a Dream” speech. My parents were in the crowd there as a part of the Freedom March, also known as the March on Washington.

I first encountered this Letter in a freshman philosophy class. That was 31 years ago, closer to Dr. King’s day than to today. Some of the circumstances he saw in the 1960s and I saw in the 1980s are still prevalent. We still face racial injustice.

Other issues of the sixties have been surpassed by issues unforeseen by Dr. King and unimaginable to the philosophers and political scientists of his time. We now see animosity directed toward “different” people … and the “differences” that give rise to hostility are many and varied and not always easily categorized. Officials lose their jobs because they express their religious beliefs. We experience vitriol in our public debate that has so deteriorated that many, if not most, of us would rather tune out than get involved.

I believe the problem is this: We don’t love each other enough. We are unwilling to put up with differences. We feel compelled to correct each other – just skim your Facebook feed if you don’t believe me. Too often, we decide that someone who disagrees with us cannot be trusted. Seeking our own way is the new normal.

In his sermon about Jonah, our pastor Brent Beasley said, “Am I prepared to reach out with God’s love to people who are different than I am, whom I don’t like, who make me uncomfortable?” Our church's written order of worship from that Sunday included this quote from William Carter: “When are we going to get it straight that the love of God is for all people?”

Jesus commanded us to love one another and told us people would know we are His disciples by our love. Paul writes: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.... Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.”

We still hear Dr. King’s call. Whether you choose individually to stand against discrimination or poison politics is your decision. Whether Broadway chooses to accept and love those who differ from us – the fundamentalist, the radical, the one who sincerely understands scripture differently - is for us as a congregation to consider.

But if we do not first heed the call of Jesus and Paul to love better than we do now, our other choices will be as “resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.” (1 Cor. 13:1)

Dr. King recognized this. The essence of his Letter is his impassioned discussion of “the most excellent way of love.” He closes the Letter by imploring, as perhaps only a Baptist preacher can: “Let us all hope that … in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

In the words of Dr. King, let’s follow Jesus and be “extremists for love.” It is, after all, the most excellent way.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

...That We Should Be Called the Children of God

Poets or children or lunatics.

Rabbi Yehuda Berg writes:"As children, our imaginations are vibrant, and our hearts are open. We believe that the bad guy always loses and that the tooth fairy sneaks into our rooms at night to put money under our pillow. Everything amazes us, and we think anything is possible. We continuously experience life with a sense of newness and unbridled curiosity."

It is a curious moment. When Jesus is asked who will be the greatest in the kingdom, His response is to grab a little child, pull him to the center of the crowd, and tell all who will listen that only those who become like little children will enter the kingdom.

The characteristics of such a child - what Jesus must have in mind - include things like openness, confident reliance, acceptance of gifts, candor (Mark Twain said, "Children tell all they know and then stop."), affectionate love, dependence, honest curiosity, and energy. A child comes into Christ's kingdom trusting and accepting what the Lord offers, loving God and God's people, innocently depending on God for everything, looking around with open eyes to take it all in and find a place to serve. Children are unpretentious, loving and praying and helping without stopping to look at themselves to see if they are doing it right.

Fredrich Buechner says that this passage from Matthew 18 - "become like little children" - may be the most tempting verse of all scriptures to sentimentalize. I think what he means is that it is easy for us to create a laundry list of characteristics of children to recite. We smile as we run movies in our own mind of our children or grandchildren, or of other precious children we have known, or of our own remembered childhood. The problem, for us, comes when we try to look at this verse not as a sentiment but as a command - if we are to wake up tomorrow and become more childlike, what would that mean? For, you see, we cannot just quit our jobs. We cannot abandon our responsibilities, for we have children of our own and elderly parents and employees and customers and clients and bosses and many others who depend on us. We have the worries of this world bearing down on us. We have been taught - carefully taught over many years - a set of biases and judgments and, yes, prejudices that guide how we see everything and everyone around us. Innocence is far behind us all.

Unlike us, children ask questions not so much to gain information as to reassure themselves that we adults are seeing the same thing they see. Buechner goes on to say that a child's "Why is the grass green?" is not an inquiry into the process of photosynthesis; the child wants to be sure that we also see the greenness. We adults, on the other hand, have moved far beyond the wonder of discovery; we ask so that we can know, can understand, can control.

And then Jesus's words become a problem. We cannot become a little child. It is impossible.

And what is impossible with us is God's specialty. Jesus calls the child into the middle of the circle and tells them (and us), flatly, that they (and we) cannot get into heaven absent a miracle. We cannot become little children, but God has already declared that He is our father. He offers us the right to be come His children. When Paul writes about it, he uses the term adoption. When Jesus describes the gift to Nicodemus, he speaks of new birth. Either way, the message is clear: we cannot do anything to become children, but God can - and does - make us His children.

It is a miracle, and like most of God's everyday miracles, we seem blind to it. Buechner continues:"In the realm of our blindness, we need poets or children or lunatics to show us the miracles that we do not notice." The poet writes it, and we chalk it up to metaphor. The lunatic tells us what he knows, and we say "there he goes, hearing voices again." And so,once more, enter that child that Jesus brings among us. The child shows us what our guarded, adult selves cannot see through our responsibilities and prejudices and education. There is a miracle going on - God is accepting us, adopting us, rebirthing us as His children.

What manner of love is this, that we should be called the children of God. And that is what we are.