Summer Camping

The campsite was laid out in our usual Sears family way. The tent had been set up on the highest piece of ground my Dad could find in the rented campsite, far enough away from the fire area that no one had to worry about embers hitting the tent and far enough under trees as to provide much needed shade. My Dad would always bring extra stakes and ropes to secure the tent and rain canopy –  experiences of camping in heavy rains had apparently taught him to do this – which created a ready made obstacle course for my two brothers and me.

It was my birthday, but I don’t remember which one. Truth of the matter is that Dad’s vacation fell on my birthday so often in my early years that I thought camping was something you were required to do on your birthday. That is, until I realized that we were always home in February and October for my brother’s birthday celebrations. But this was normal for me.

It was still light out but we had eaten dinner and even a cake of some sort and were really just relaxing for the evening. My younger brother was making use of the obstacle course. Mom, my older brother and I were sitting at the picnic table playing a game of “Sorry!”. Why we took board games on camping trips was beyond me at that time. I’m guessing it cut down on the number of times Mom had to yell at us for chasing one another around the tent or fire. It was also a good time waster. Dad was working on getting a fire ready for the evening.

I don’t recall what we were snacking on, probably chips or pretzels, and soft drinks. It was my turn to move in the game and my older brother was getting impatient but my attention had turned to a squirrel in one of the trees near us. I had been watching a lot of squirrels simply because I was hoping to see a “flying squirrel”. To that point, I’d just seen a lot of acrobatic ones. Still my attention was in the trees when my Mom suddenly began slamming the table, knocking the “Sorry!” game pieces all over the place and spilling her bright pink can of TaB. She wasn’t really making any noise but it looked like she was coughing. Truthfully, I had no idea what was going on at the time.

Now, just to put this in it’s proper historical time, this was taking place before the widespread implementation of the Heimlich Maneuver. Heck, it might have even been before the maneuver itself was introduced. I don’t recall the exact birthday but it had to be around 1975. I might have been ten years old, but I doubt it.

So, here we are, a family of five, with one in obvious distress at picnic table in some state park in WV. One boy running around a tent and jumping over and crawling under the various sets of ropes holding down a tent and rain canopy. Two other boys looking stunned, glancing back and forth between a ruined board game, a dripping diet soda, and a mother acting very strange. And a father getting a campfire ready for roasting marshmallows.

My Dad stepped away from the fire building, walked up behind my Mom and said, “Do you need a hit?” and then without even waiting for answer, hauls off and smacks her in the back with the flat of his hand with so much force that she went sprawling across the table, the Sorry! board, and the spilled TaB. I don’t know if the pretzels fell victim to the sprawl or not.

Mom came up from the “hit” with just about the same force she had taken – proof to my young mind that every action has an opposite and equal reaction – and screamed at my Dad, “Well, what did you ask me for if you weren’t going to wait for an answer!”

Somehow, the whole thing became outrageously funny at that moment and both Mom and Dad began laughing and the rest of us stunned observers, who were still not sure what had happened joined in.

The evening went on. I got to have the first S’more of the night because it was my birthday. We sat around the campfire as always and were told “once, if not a thousand times” not to get so close to the fire. We laughed and sang and sometimes just got quiet. But every once in a while the breeze would snatch up enough smoke and billow it towards someone that they would cough. Inevitably someone else would say, “Do you need a hit?” and the coughing person would yell “NO!” and everyone would crack up.

In fact, it became such a joke in our family that I can remember my Dad, coughing in a hospital bed during his last week of life, smiling and shaking his head “no” when I asked him, “Do you need a hit?”

That little phrase seemed to carry us back to the woods, the tent, the sticky s’mores the squirrels, the wood smoke, and the fun.

Some words are like that. They evoke such powerful memory that they take us back to something that is more than just a memory, more than just a fading thought. They evoke time, place, event, with such Gemüt that reality itself is evoked anew.

In my family, “Do you need a hit?” still does that.

My other family, the one that I journey with towards that “home” we do not know yet, has a few too.

“This is the body…broken…”

“I was glad when they said to me…”

“Peace be with you.”

“He is risen…”

“In the beginning…”

And I thought it was just going to be another summer camping trip taking place around my birthday. Who knew?

Prepare

I sat alone in the cathedral after a long day of visiting the campus. Yeah, I know that because it is a Protestant building it is called a Chapel, but when you are in it calling it a chapel is like calling the Empire State Building a tent. It just doesn’t capture the immensity of the structure. Doesn’t come close to the holiness. Whatever it was, I sat there tired and either prayed or thought, not sure which.

Then and now, I sometimes have trouble telling the difference between praying and thinking.

Prayer for me has always had little bit to much gray matter involvement. I would love to be one of those people who always seem to be able to let the Spirit pour into them and through them as their words rise up to God’s ear. Instead, the synapses will always start firing inside my noggin and I would “think” to God. I am communicating with God so I always count it as prayer.

It’s not always that way though.

There was the time I held my youngest daughter’s head for the first time. (Yeah…just her head, but don’t worry, it will make sense in a few.) It was before she was even born. (I’m not doing very good clearing this up…) Okay, the most precise way to say this is that it was immediately before her birth. the nurses had underestimated the progress of my wife’s labor but after our first child I had picked up a couple of important clues from the woman I love. One of the most important was the moment when she went from labor to transition. On her, it was like a switch going off deep inside her and involved her whole body and face. I knew it the instant I saw it. There were labor pains (that we had been dealing with all day) and then without much warning there was this “Okay, this baby is getting out of my body right now and nothing short of God is gonna make me stop pushing and even if God does show up God had better have a Plan B that works” kind of focus on her face.

I pushed the button to call a nurse and they were quick to respond. When she came in I said, “I really believe she is in transition and needs to push.” She smiled and said, “Let me check things out but after only a quick peak she started hitting other call buttons, turning on lights and said, “I will get the doctor right now. You get her to breath instead of push.”

I would have rather tried to blow back a freight train, but I did my best.

It wasn’t long till a lot happened all at once. More lights were turned on, the room got crowded with equipment dropping out of the ceiling and being pulled from the walls, and a doctor came in and stood between my wife’s legs. It was a blur of activity. the doctor was struggling to get his gown and gloves on when I heard him say, “Dad. I need your help here. I need you to do us all a favor.”

“Ok.” was the best I could muster.

“Put your hand down here and hold your child in a moment while I get ready to catch. Can you do that?”

That was a moment the synapses didn’t fire. I just prayed. I did what I was told but when my bare fingers touched that wet mound of baby hair there was a groan rising up out of me that just was not from me. I’m sure it wasn’t audible. The room was full of medical people and I’m certain if they had heard it, I would have become “patient” instead of Dad. But my heart felt it and I knew that God heard it.

It was prayer as I’ve never prayed before.

When I said, “Thanks,” after the doctor took over for me, I was disappointed when I heard him say, “Thank-you” back to me. I honestly expected a thundering “You are welcome, my child” to fill the room. I knew to whom I spoke even if the doctor didn’t.

I also recall a time when someone very dear to me was on the verge of dying. My brain could not wrap around the concept of her leaving, especially at such a young age. My heat couldn’t contain the grief that I knew would flood over others who were even closer to her. Nothing fired between my ears but somehow or another I heard myself start to hum. It was a stupid tune given the gravity of the situation and the noise of the life sustaining equipment running in the room: “I sing the body electric. I glory in the glow of rebirth…” I knew I was just humming the tune but the words hung in the air all around me and it felt more like a prayer than anything else at the moment. Weird, out-of-place, poorly timed prayer, but prayer nonetheless. I was actually relieved when someone in the room said, “Stop that. No music. I can’t take music right now.”

They had no idea that I was praying. I barely knew that I was praying. Truth be told, in the face of this very unfair death playing out before me, I couldn’t handle even thinking about praying.

So I was relieved to be able to stop.

Prayer still is a funny thing for me. It was that day I sat in Duke Chapel years before either of these other more spiritual moments in life. My prayer that day was my normal think-through of a conversation with God.

Duke ChapelIs this the place God wanted me to go to and prepare to be a pastor? Was Duke the right fit for me to learn about sharing life and death moments with people I would meet later in churches? Would this place shape me the way I needed to be shaped and molded? And God forbid, would they really be able to teach me? Could they reach down to my level in such a way that I would actually learn here?

Somehow through all the firing of neurons in my brain a peace over me in that giant space. I was still thinking. It wasn’t a “Aha, this IS it” sort of peace but more of a “Do you really think I’m the kinda God who wouldn’t be here? I’m mean, look at this cathedral they built me, Scott!”

I laughed out loud at that thought and knew without any doubt that The Divinity School was the place for me. I figured if God didn’t know it was just a Chapel, even my “in my brain God,” I’d do just fine.

We’d do just fine.

And we did.

 

Peace!!

Kindles

A few days ago I got a box out of the closet in the corner of my office. The faded markings on a address on the box, covered by several layers of packing tape indicated I received the contents while serving in Kincaid, WV as a student pastor in the United Methodist Church. I lived near the church in Kincaid, served a second church in Mossy and attended what was then called West Virginia Institute of Technology. That school, like a couple other of my alma maters, has since either closed or been relocated. It’s hard to tell which from their name and new location. If anyone asks, I tell them I graduated from WV Tech which is a little ironic for a guy who knew his next step in life would be a theological education. Then again it would explain why I justify writing my devotions, studies, blogs and even sermons on electronic paper when creating my “SFD”. (Writers and fans of Ann Lamont will get that. Others won’t want to know.)

That box at some point in time held a hot air popcorn popper but I don’t remember having one of those so I reckon the contents that are currently there were shipped to me in this container. The label says it was delivered to a post office box in Kincaid. Yes. I had one of those but the number meant nothing to me even after seeing it in writing. The postmark is dim that I can’t make out the date but I’m guessing the late 80’s or early 90’s. I’m not so dim as to forget when I went to whatever the name of that school was.

The box isn’t all that important. Nor the mailing label for that matter. But they were interesting to me. In a way they remind me that the contents and I relocate from time to time. We’ve traveled quite a few miles this box and I.

IMG_20171205_124748.jpgInside it are ceramic figures of a sheep, a donkey, an ox (not to any kind of scale, mind you, because I’ve seen an ox and they are scary big) as well as a camel that has been glued together more than once. An angel is in there too as well as three suspiciously Anglo looking “Wise Men from the East” and equally White looking shepherd, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Don’t ever tell me that we don’t allow culture to influence our “pure biblical religion.” I will just ask you to show me your nativity set or a copy of the latest Christmas card you bought with a scene of Jesus’ birth on it.

We all make Jesus fit into our culture at times. It’s what we do as humans. Actually, it’s what the Son of God had to do to become one of us as well.

I carefully placed this suspect nativity set on the credenza in my office using some plants left over from my Dad’s funeral a couple of years ago as a back drop. I didn’t think much about the racial and theological implications of the pieces while I was placing them. I handled each one with care because I didn’t want to get the glue out again and because each one kindles in me a love for the group of people who got together decades ago and hand painted each one of these figurines.

I attended United Methodist Temple in Beckley, WV as a youth and young adult. They had a tradition of giving one piece of this set to each child as they grew up among them. When the occasion arose that they had some outlier like me who came late to the party, then they would send them an entire set when they went off to college or left home for whatever reason. The thing is that I knew that these pieces were labors of love. The people who painted and sent them to me were my last true church “home.” I have loved and have been loved by every congregation I’ve served but the fact is that I came out of Temple.

These were my people.

These were my people giving me a gift.

These were my people giving me a gift to remind me of the Incarnate nature of Jesus.

Every year I put them out and remember. Every year I put them away in the same box, with the same styrofoam popcorn – just caught that irony there of the box and the packing popcorn – and I remember the care taken to make sure I got them.

And I take them with me. Always.

Peace!

#ReThinkAdvent
#UnwrapChristmas

Open

 

Open 2017

Books take up the greatest amount of space on the shelves in my office. However, there is one shelf devoted to important photos, one devoted to bacon – if you have to ask, you don’t really want to know – and one that just has some special gifts given to me over the years.

One of the treasured gifts on that shelf is a a little red fire engine given to me by Dick and Jessie one December as an early Christmas present. I laughed when I opened it and I still smile every time I see it.

It was the beginning of Advent one year and to set the tone of “waiting” I wrote an article for our church newsletter that told a long and involved story about a gift I wanted as a child one Christmas. I’ll give you the short version now. I spotted a fire engine in a store one day while shopping with my Mom. I begged her to get it for me and she said something about “Maybe for Christmas.” I didn’t stop talking about that engine until one day a suspicious looking package appeared under our Christmas tree with my name on it. It was the right height, width and length for that fire engine and to keep from jinxing anything, I shut up about it till Christmas morn.

It’s important to know that at times, my family makes Christmas gift wrapping an art in and of itself. They did with this package as well. I recall at least three layers of wrapping paper that were all covered in shipping tape under the outer layer of tissue paper. It was frustrating to open and I spent a good deal of time trying to rip into it. I remember writing about this:

“Even my older brother started to feel sorry for me and gave me a hand in opening this present. He helped me rip, pull and tear on that package. And then, when all the wrapping and tape lay in a heap around us… Well, I think I am just going to save the end of this story for Christmas Eve. Join us in worship then and I will tell the rest.

And I ended the article that way.

On December 22nd, Jessie and Dick stopped by to see me with a gift. They asked me to open it right then and sure enough it was a fire engine with a card that said, “Every little boy deserves to get the gift they really want, sometimes.”

I explained to them that I did indeed get the gift I wanted that Christmas many years ago and that I had told the story the way I did to get us all in the spirit of “waiting”. We all had a huge laugh about it and I cherish that engine even more than the original. (Well, at least it lasted longer. Seven year old boys can destroy toys in no time. A book shelf is pretty safe.)

That second engine was much easier to open too. I think that was because the givers of the gift thought I had waited long enough and they wanted to make things as simple as possible for me to receive this gift.

These days I pray that I have their eyes during Advent every year. I know the greatest gift some people could ever have this Christmas. I pray that the Spirit leads and I find just the right way to wrap it up and pass it on.

Thank you, Jessie and Dick! You’ve made every Advent, every Christmas special to this little boy, uhm, pastor.

Peace,

Scott

#RethinkChurch

#UnwrapChristmas

Definite Different Drumbeat – 2

Dubious

(Just a note first…I have been using my new ReMarkable tablet to write posts the past few days. Today,the tablet and I had, well, issues. Fortunately, I printed a draft and can type it in. Sorry…no handwriting to dig through today.)

Paul could feel the dubious looks and incredulous stares on the back of his neck as he hung up his placard and shovel in the same spot he’d been placing it for years. He placed his overcoat directly beside it, a coat he wore for protection from the elements of his small town who preferred to meet prophecy with thrown rotten eggs rather than repentance.

As he turned to meet the eyes of the Christian judge behind, he found that he had to lower his gaze a couple of feet. “Ah, one of Jackson’s boys.” he thought. Jackson had long got past the judgmental stage with Paul and even managed to overcome the usual awkwardness that remained. Jackson treated Paul as a fellow man. He liked Jackson because of that. Would his three boys turn out as well? Would this one that was staring at him now turn out to be cut from his father’s cloth? Who knew?

Paul raised his head a little bit to give a greeting to the young boy and was himself startled when an involuntary grunt escaped from his throat. The boy darted through the narthex door and into the sanctuary before Paul could even think of how to apologize.

Paul took his seat in the back pew of the Methodist Church, arranged his long hair and longer beard with a few strokes from his hand and prepared himself for the rituals and songs to come. He didn’t care for worship all that much in the Methodist tradition. But it was God’s house and the people in this sanctuary were polite. They might stare, but they didn’t ask him to leave his shovel at home. Most just ignored him and that was fine. They may well be damned for not heeding his shouldered message but they let him go on carrying it.

And yet the older man could not keep from stealing glances at the middle son of Jackson through the whole worship service. At first he thought it was the burning desire to apologize to the young man for he had indeed scared him. Soon, that desire faded and Paul recognized the boy for who he was, one of the silent ones. During his many walks through town Paul would be taunted by the cries of groups of kids – “Crazy Paul! Crazy Paul! Crazy Paul!” – but the silent ones may have been in the group, but never took up the cry. He doubted that this young boy would ever be brave enough to stand up to his friends but he was silent. Sometimes, silence was golden for Paul.

That didn’t settle his mind either and Paul still found himself looking at the boy from time to time.

Then it hit him.

Was it really a grunt that escaped from his throat? Or was it perhaps God speaking to the young man through Paul in a way only the boy would understand? Is that why he was frightened? Despite the many times Paul heard himself referred to as crazy, he knew he was completely lucid. He also knew that he didn’t understand half of what God did in this world and understood even less of what God didn’t do.

The boy would just not leave Paul’s mind so when the final hymn started, Paul decided to make an early exit. Reaching the narthex he donned his overcoat and shouldered his sign, the placard of prophecy plastered on a snow shovel – “THE END IS NEAR! REPENT!”. He walked out the door and allowed his ever present snow boots to smack the hot July pavement as he journeyed home for the day. With each step, instead of the listening for the cries of “Cra-zy Paul!” he allowed himself to whisper a prayer. “Jackson’s son…Jackson’s son…Jackson’s son.”

Peace!